On Thursday, ProRepublica and Consumer Reports published a detailed look into the lengths the major pharmaceutical companies will go to in order to keep their treatments overpriced.
From cornering the market on subject-matter experts who testify in front of Congress to paying for and influencing the studies that promote the efficacy of their drugs, big pharma is working hard to prevent competition, innovation, and public policy change that would hurt their bottom line.
In January, President Trump pledged to help lower the cost of prescription medications saying, “we have to get prices down. We have no choice.” Unfortunately, he made those remarks just before a closed-door meeting with the CEOs of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the country. It seems that the President trusts big pharma to put the interests of consumers and even the overall economy before their own profits. The solutions the companies pitched to the president included reducing regulations and preventing overseas manufacturers access to the domestic market.
Trump’s meeting occurred just days after a Federal lawsuit was filed in the US District Court of Massachusetts alleging that three major companies colluded to keep insulin prices high. Meanwhile in December, the Department of Justice charged two executives of a drug company with rigging bids and working with other manufacturers to fix prices on a diabetic treatment and an antibiotic; they both plead guilty last month. On Tuesday of this week, members of Congress requested that the CEO of Kaléo Pharmaceuticals answer for a 600% price increase over the last three years for a much needed drug used to treat opioid overdoses.
As Congress works deeper into the Kaléo and other pharma concerns, they will likely turn to experts from the nation’s top universities for advice. According to the ProRepublica report, many of those experts are paid to consult for a company named Precision Health Economics. When Congress asked for a briefing on the high cost of Hepatitis C treatments, the article says that, “three of the four panelists were current or former Precision Health Economics consultants. One was the firm’s co-founder, Darius Lakdawalla, a University of Southern California professor.”
Precision Health Economics’ website says that, “Life science companies and policymakers worldwide turn to PHE to shape strategy, inform key healthcare decisions, and produce effective changes in public policy through insightful, issue-driven research.” But, it appears that there are simply serving as an academics-for-hire public relations arm of major pharmaceutical companies. They write articles for companies like AbbVie and produce studies blaming Medicare for the high cost of drugs.
Fortunately, there are many organizations that fight for patient’s rights in the changing world of healthcare. Patient advocacy organizations lobby legislatures to improve the standards of care and keep costs low. But, big pharma thought of that, too. A recent study by JAMA Internal Medicine showed that two-thirds of surveyed patient advocacy organizations were at least partially funded by the same industry they claim to be defending patients from. The study goes on to show that organizations that took money from opioid manufacturers were much more likely to stand against CDC measures to reduce the number of prescriptions written for chronic pain.
Even scientific research is tainted by the work of big pharma. In 2006, the New England Journal of Medicine pointed to a GlaxoSmithKline drug, Avandia, as being “more effective than standard therapies.” According to a Washington Post investigation into the report, it was found that,
“[t]he trial had been funded by GlaxoSmithKline, and each of the 11 authors had received money from the company. Four were employees and held company stock. The other seven were academic experts who had received grants or consultant fees from the firm.”
The over $400 billion United States pharmaceutical market will stop at nothing to ensure nothing interferes with their ability to increase profits. To them, it doesn’t matter that the entire healthcare industry is suffering from rising costs. Insurance costs, even under the Affordable Care Act, are continuing to climb. Reimbursements to physicians are decreasing, forcing them to see more patients, reducing the quality of care they provide.
There are plenty of complex reasons that the our health system is broken and realistic solutions won’t come easy. However, if we are serious about fixing healthcare in this country, perhaps we should start with its biggest villain, big pharma.
Last month, while arguing for a measure to lower drug costs by importing key medicines from Canada, Senator Bernie Sanders called out his colleagues. As 13 Democrats voted against the measure, Sen. Sanders chided them by saying, “The Democratic Party has got to make it very clear that they are prepared to stand up to powerful special interests like the pharmaceutical industry.”
Until elected officials on both sides of the aisle start to fight the monopolistic overreach of major pharmaceutical companies, important therapies, like new cures for hepatitis C which cost around $1,000 a day, will continue to be out of reach for Americans that need them most.