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Big Pharma's ads, salaries help make life-saving meds unaffordable

Judy Garland • May 16, 2018 at 6:30 AM

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed by all Community Voices columnists are their own and do not necessary reflect the official positions of the Johnson City Press.

A major worry facing many Americans today is the burgeoning cost of pharmaceutical drugs. Recent shocking cost increases should make us determined to find out not just why prices are so high but why Congress has been AWOL on this. There must be some discoverable explanation.

I trust Public Citizen, a consumer-interest group formed almost 50 years ago. They have a history of critical accomplishments, in areas including drug safety, workers’ and victims’ rights, product safety, financial protections, toxic waste, auto safety, air and water quality, allergens and carcinogens, plus all kinds of corporate welfare and abuse. It’s a list of things that make our lives healthier, safer, fairer, and more affordable.

They were leaders in the creation of the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau which the Trump Administration seems determined to scrap even though it has pushed back against many credit-card abuses by big banks and scored other important wins for consumers. Public Citizen has argued 63 cases before the Supreme Court, always as extreme underdogs against well-heeled special interests, and has won more than half of them.

They’re now fighting on our side for more affordable pharmaceuticals against what must be, in our current political situation, the most formidable of opponents. How can Big Pharma remain so powerful when they are reviled across the country? Arrayed against them are economic justice advocates, seniors organizations, labor unions, and other activist groups that team with Public Citizen. Also opposed to them are health industry interests, including hospitals, medical professionals, big employers, and even insurance companies who all have a financial stake in affordable medicines, and have experience with the harsh realities facing patients. Also many state and local governments, knowing when they are being price gouged, ally with Public Citizen in this fight.

The usual justification drug companies raise for high drug prices is the expense of research and development. Then they’ll go on about the intricacies of our incredibly complex system of public and private players, yada, yada. It’s all a lie. Cut through fast talk and distractions and it boils down to one thing. They gouge us because they can, and get rich doing it, and with little consideration of harm to individuals and families, or to society in general. How do they get away with it?

They spend more on their advertising than they do on research and development. In 2017, they spent 18 percent of revenues on advertising compared to 12.1 percent on R&D. And here may be the best clue as to their enduring pricing racket. In 2017, Pfizer, Merck & Co., Eli Lilly & Co., Johnson and Johnson, Amgen and others spent $277 million in lobbying Congress, with no less than 1,400 lobbyists swarming those once-hallowed halls, making contact with, and pledging financial support for, those charged to be our representatives. So why is Congress AWOL? The answer is Big Pharma’s political clout (money). It’s an “investment” that yields them billions every year — at our expense.

Big Pharma CEO compensation is through the roof. Other S&P 500 companies’ CEOs often make $10 million-$12 million yearly, which can seem small by drug company standards. Eli Lilly has paid its CEO $16,600,000, then all the way up to Regeneron with their CEO at $47,500,000, with seven other major companies somewhere in between, two a little under $20 million and five well above. None of these outrageous numbers for advertising, lobbying, and CEO pay are necessary or defensible, and certainly not justification for extorting anyone, especially cash-strapped individuals who are victims in this game. When any company offers a cheap generic version, good as the original, the big guys buy them out. It isn’t about competition. It’s about monopoly.

How much does all this contribute to a powerful new drug for curing hepatitis C costing $94,000? Or a new gene therapy to treat progressive blindness at $850,000? And a new and potentially life-saving leukemia treatment, Kymriah, to cost $475,000 per treatment? Is it any wonder price justifications are being questioned? Beyond the expense, our constant barrage of profit-driven pharmaceutical ads popping up on TV screens infuriates those of us who know most countries wouldn’t allow it because medical advertising should be only in the public interest.

It’s shameful when our people ration meds by cutting them in half or thirds or quarters, knowing they’re cutting effectiveness, just to keep some in their system. Folks die from skimping on medicines designed to save lives. According to Public Citizen, to simply give Medicare the right to negotiate drug prices would, conservatively, save $16 billion a year.

We all should contact Representative Roe and Senators Alexander and Corker. Congress could end the abuses of drug company monopoly control and should foster generic competition when prices are too high. They could also tax back extra profit made through illegitimate price hikes.

Since the beginning of the Trump Administration, we’re seeing more and more signs of dramatically effective citizen action. Exorbitant drug pricing is certainly an issue ripe for grassroots attention. The responses we get from our representatives with regard to Big Pharma might well be the strongest and clearest test of all, as to whom they really represent.

Judy Garland of Johnson City is a community health care activist.

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