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Editorial: High drug prices just one example of special interests thwarting popular will

  • Sen. Jeanne Shaheen greets Merle Schotanus, of Lebanon, N.H., a former state representative, before sitting down for a roundtable discussion on prescription drug affordability on Friday, March 8, 2019, at Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital. Also at the table are Karry LaHaye, left, a primary care social worker at the hospital; Curtis Gibson, director of retail pharmacy at Dartmouth-Hitchcock; and Sue Mooney, president and CEO at APD.(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck ) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • With health care a top issue for American voters, Congress may actually be moving toward doing something this year to address the high cost of prescription drugs. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)


Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Jeanne Shaheen was preaching to the choir when the senator visited Lebanon last week to decry sky-high prescription drug prices and build support for two bills she has introduced to bring them down. Her audience at Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital consisted of hospital executives and health care professionals who are only too familiar with the difficulty patients encounter in paying for their medications.

Sue Mooney, APD’s chief executive, recounted how an uninsured patient who sought treatment the previous day had been quoted a $4,000 price for a week’s supply of antibiotics, which was eventually reduced through the use of discount coupons to $700. Such things, Mooney said, happen every week.

Shaheen seeks to address the situation through separate bills that would end the tax deduction pharmaceutical companies enjoy for the costs of advertising and reform the patent system to increase access to lower-cost medications. The New Hampshire Democrat, who is seeking re-election in 2020, also favors legislation that would allow Medicare and Medicaid to negotiate prices with drug companies on behalf of the millions of participants in those two government health insurance programs and would permit the re-importation from Canada of lower cost medications.

Total spending by the government, consumers and insurers on prescription drugs totaled $333 billion in 2017, a 41 percent increase from 2007. A study published earlier this year by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh provides needed context for any discussion of drug price increases. They found that rapidly rising prices resulted not from expensive, innovative new therapies or from dramatic improvements in existing ones, as drug companies generally claim, but rather from price increases for existing medications. An example? Insulin, which doubled in price between 2012 and 2016.

Immaculada Hernandez, the lead author of the study and an assistant professor of pharmacy, said, “The main takeaway from our study should be that increases in prices of brand-name drugs were largely driven by year-over-year price increases of drugs that were already in the market.” Which sounds to our ear very much like a polite way of saying price gouging.

Gerard Anderson, professor of health policy and management at Johns Hopkins University, told National Public Radio that research and development accounts for only about 17 percent of total spending at most big pharma companies. “Once a drug has been approved by the FDA, there are minimal additional research and development costs, so drug companies cannot justify price increases by claiming research and development costs,” he said.

It’s no wonder then that 92 percent of Americans think Medicare should be able to negotiate on drug prices and 71 percent believe that consumers should be able to buy drugs imported from Canada, figures cited in a recent New York Times commentary by Tim Wu, a Columbia University law professor, which was headlined “The Oppression of the Supermajority.”

Wu argues that on many issues such as drug prices, large numbers of Americans are united in their beliefs instead of being polarized. Big majorities, for instance, favor higher taxes on the 1 percent, a federal law guaranteeing paid maternity leave, strong net neutrality rules and enhanced privacy protections. So, he asks, why are these policy preferences ignored?

“In our era,” he writes, “it is primarily Congress that prevents popular laws from being passed or getting serious consideration. ... Entire categories of public policy options are effectively off-limits because of the combined influence of industry groups and donor interests.”

That would appear to leave two choices. The first is to actually drain the infamous Washington swamp that’s teeming with high-powered corporate lobbyists and billionaire donors. Unfortunately, the Trump administration, while paying lip service to the notion, perpetuates its existence and extends its reach into the executive branch. The second option is to elect a president and enough members of Congress who have the resolve to ignore the special interests and pay attention to the public interest.