By editorial board • 

Time finally may be right for pharmaceutical reform

In response to rising public ire over soaring prescription drug prices, an avalanche of pricing-transparency and cost-containment bills have cascaded into the congressional hopper in the last few years. Yet precious few have emerged to make a meaningful difference, and it isn’t hard to understand why.

Why is it virtually impossible to enact banking reform or handgun restrictions on the federal level, or PERS reform at the state level, to name just three examples? Because bankers and handgun manufacturers are represented by powerful lobbies than keep federal campaign funds flush with cash — particularly on the Republican side. And because public employees are represented by powerful lobbies that enrich state campaigns in like fashion — almost exclusively on the Democratic side.

So it is with the nation’s powerful pharmaceutical industry. Ten companies accounted for more than half of all health care profits reported last fall, and nine are pillars of Big Pharma. In good measure, they have attained and retained their exalted status because they shower money on candidates.

However:

Democrats seized control of the House last year. Democratic presidential candidates are virtually all climbing aboard the Pharma reform bandwagon. President Trump has chosen a good line himself, though to no real effect so far. Ten GOP senators recently supported legislation to facilitate Canadian importation. An array of moderate or populist Republicans, led by Senate Finance Committee Chair Chuck Grassley, are open to supporting reform in some fashion. And Grassley is about to join ranking committee Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon in giving Big Pharma lobbyists a sound public grilling. So the stage may be set for at least some modest progress.

As Wyden noted in his opening blast:

AbbVie has pushed the price of its arthritis drug Humira, the nation’s top overall seller, from $19,000 a year to $38,000 a year since 2012. And the company  has tied its CEO’s compensation to Humira sales for several years.

In response to a shot from Trump, Pfizer publicly pledged to freeze prices on drugs led by Lyrica, now generating $4.5 billion in annual sales on the strength of an accumulated cost hike of 163 percent over six years. But it recently raised prices again on virtually the whole lot, including Lyrica.

Since 2010, Sanofi has more than tripled the price of insulin, which joined the market almost 100 years ago. And last year, Merck & Co. responded to criticism by cutting the prices on drugs generating virtually no revenue, but maintaining its cash cows, Keytruda and Januvia.

The immediate Grassley-Wyden push is aimed merely at closing some particularly egregious loopholes and stemming some particularly flagrant abuses.

But presidential contenders Bernie Sanders and Amy Klobuchar, and potential contender Jeff Merkley of Oregon, have introduced bills tying American prices to the vastly lower developed-nation average. Moves to grant Medicare direct negotiating authority, boost availability of low-cost generics and ban direct-to-consumer advertising, in decreasing order of likelihood, also show promise.

Big Pharma holds a gun to the heads of our rapidly aging population. It demands to be disarmed. 

Comments

Don Dix

Let's call this what it is -- 'the bribing of congress'!

So, by 'bribing' members of congress, Big Pharma continues to overcharge consumers without impunity. Recipients of these cash infusions won't budge as long as the flow continues, evidenced by action up to present. Longevity of congress members creates the opportunity, and pharmaceuticals have taken full advantage.

Wouldn't this (and other similar situations) obvious connection create the impetus and justification for term limits and/or campaign finance reform? The American public is getting screwed royally by those who are charged to represent, not get rich at our expense!

Mike

Don. I agree with you 100 percent. We have the vote, which seems weak compared to Big Pharma's money. I always ask myself, why is that money so effective in electing Big Pharma's friends? I say to myself they can't buy my vote, they can't by my friends vote. The money buys something which keeps keeping Big Pharma rich at our expense. And when someone says 'stop, we (government) needs to do something' There is a cry of socialism or evil government control. It's a mystery why I can't make my vote count.

Don Dix

Mike -- Remember those pharmaceutical CEOs who testified before the Senate recently? They testified American consumers were financing 'innovation', so higher prices were the result.

The truth? The U.S. doesn’t have price control laws that limit what drug companies can charge, unlike much of the world and every wealthy country. Why? U.S. senators, both Republicans and Democrats alike, are each raking in thousands of dollars every year from the pharmaceutical industry.

So, in effect, the CEOs were thrown mostly softball questions (or the payoffs stop). And the high price of drugs remains.

Now if term limits were in effect, those who have been protecting the drug companies' right to charge whatever would not even be in the Senate -- and quite possibly US drug prices would be lower.

My thot? 12 years in office, no lifetime salary, no special deal on health insurance, no cushy position from any contributor for 7 years after office, and then go find a real job -- and pay your own way. One can dream, right?

Mike

No problem with term limits or forced retirements or limits on what ex-politicians can do to make money from their political experience. Most of the current congress folks in the Senate are millionaires and where when they ran. True being Senator helped them get richer. What does the Pharma money buy? It buys re-election. How does re-election happen? We vote. Why are we swayed by money against our own good judgement? Will term limits help? If money gets thee votes, then the new comers will need it. Hey there's Pharma with a pocket full. How to stop the cycle?

Don Dix

First step should be the abandonment of the political parties. That would effectively reduce 90% of the BS spewed during elections.

But 12 year terms should be more than enough to forward any worthwhile idea or program. One recently elected has stated the world only has 12 years left because of CAGW, so there's a design.

Voter access to congress is limited, but lobbyists are afforded complete freedom to advance bills and laws with a cash infusion to those voting. And it's all about money -- put a lobbyist in the halls of congress without any 'ready money', and it's doubtful anyone would even stop to listen.

Government entities at every level are in on the take, so, in some instances, direction of thought is based on 'who donates the most'. Taking away that advantage might lead to individual choices that actually represent the voters -- what a concept!

Mike

Abandon political parties? How? By spontaneous combustion? The First Amendment gives us the right to freely assemble, unless we're assembling to do harm. You might say the political parties are there doing harm but you'd be enjoying hyperbole to get a laugh. As long as we're America groups will gather together to joist in politics. We could use a strong third party which could impose some balance and reasonableness. Taking money out of the process is impossible. We voters have to figure a way not to be swayed my money.

Don Dix

Mike -- Withdrawing from a political party is a personal choice only. But expecting members to support whomever is nominated or which stance to take on issues is 'partisan party-line politics'.

For instance, some in congress have previously stated they were in favor of some sort 'barrier' at the southern border. Now, since the 'opposition president' has a similar idea, they are no longer in favor. And that's where government stops being effective and representative due to gridlock. Arguing, pointing fingers, and backstabbing take over (as is happening now), which has little to do with the work of the people. The political divide is the cause of most government ills, and the political parties make sure things are never settled.

And it's not the voters who are swayed by corporate money (we get no benefit) -- it's those we elect to positions in government. We elect, pay, and coddle them to represent us, and they get 'bribed' to do otherwise.

Longevity of term allows the elected to first do whatever benefits them. For instance, why was Strom Thurmond still in the Senate in his late 90s? Could anyone argue he was at all effective? He might be the best example for term limits ever!

Congress would have to 'approve' term limits and campaign finance reform, as well as abolishing the lobbyist's payouts, which would be against their best personal interests. Honest people are hard to find, and Congress has never been the place where they congregate.

Mike

Don. Corporate money, Union Money, PAC money, goes to elect and re-elect politicians. That you don't believe it seems strange. And I do agree with you about term limits and the rest.

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