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A new commentary every Wednesday - May 10, 2017

Runaway Drug Prices From Big Pharma Stoke the Healthcare Dilemma

    How can drug-makers charge so much? "Because there's nothing stopping them," said Leigh Purvis, director of health services research for the AARP Public Policy Institute.

       I have to give most of the credit for this essay to the American Association of Retired People (AARP) Bulletin of May 2017, although the following refresher course on bad and good cholesterol comes courtesy of the Mayo Clinic Website.

    We've been taught that cholesterol is a waxy substance attached to proteins (lipoproteins) that are carried by your bloodstream to help build strong cells. Low density lipoprotein (LDL) is known to build up on cardiovascular walls, narrowing them sufficiently to cause a blood clot to form—perhaps resulting in a heart attack or stroke. On the other hand, high density lipoprotein (HDL) is your friend. It picks up excess cholesterol and sends it to your liver, where it is broken down and excreted.

    There's a wealth of information on how to encourage your body to produce more HDL and less LDL, and there's a class of drugs, called "statins" that can help. Too often they are not totally effective (some patients have extremely high LDL counts, or there are sometimes unpleasant side effects to statins.) What then? Well, there's Repatha, a new drug from Amgen. According to AARP, Patients with LDL counts as high as 300 were brought down to 35—after switching to Repatha— a result that is nothing short of being miraculous.

    The big problem with Repatha is the price: $1200 a month; $14,400 a year per patient! Amgen's 1st quarter earnings in 2017 increased 8% over 4th quarter 2016 by eight percent—to $2.6-billion.

    Repatha's cost is not the exception to this price explosion. A new cancer drug, Bavencio, developed by Pfizer, will cost a patient $156,000 annually. Public outrage was volcanic when the cost of Epipen, a life-saving allergy medication, shot up 500 percent. A new medicine for muscular dystrophy is coming on the market at the astounding cost of $300,000 per annum for patients.

    Meanwhile, the median annual salary for a pharmaceutical house CEO is $14.5-million.

    Drug companies spend $6.4-billion for consumer advertising. All of the media are dominated by it. That's only the beginning. Big Pharma spends $24-billion reaching out to doctors. It hires an army of lobbyists, many of whom are one-time lawmakers. How in the world can the big pharmacology houses afford such massive expenditures? 

    Answer: The manufacturers have a monopoly on the drugs for the 20-year life of the patents. During that time, it is free to raise the price as frequently and as much as the market will bear.

    Enacting patent law is a responsibility of the US Congress. I am for free enterprise. However, an unfair 20-year lock on a medicine formula is not in the best interests of all Americans. Congress desperately needs to re-negotiate this. The overprotective  manner in which it has treated with Big Pharma can only be described as being benevolent to them and oppressive to everyone else.

    According to AARP, prescription drugs cost Americans $457-billion in 2015, an 8-percent increase over the prior year. We can't help but wonder how this ever-mounting cost for medicines must affect the total for national health care, putting it beyond the ability of any President or Congress to equitably solve.


  -Phil Richardson, Observer of the human condition and storyteller. "He goes doddering on into his old age, making a public nuisance of himself." - Joseph L. Mencken


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