Richard Davis: Bitter pills from a dysfunctional political system

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If you want to try to understand how dysfunctional our American political system is you might look at why it has been so hard for anyone to find a way to make a dent in the obscenely overpriced prescription drug market.

Trying to lower drug prices would require a nearly entire reconstruction of the American political system. The pharmaceutical lobby is one of the most influential and they throw their money and power around at least as much as the National Rifle Association.

Washington politicians rarely take bold steps on any issue that has popular support. Their actions are a reflection of the amount of money donated to their re-election campaigns. A large number of Americans are suffering and dying because of the greed of the pharmaceutical manufacturers, but too many of the people in power hold their power because they ignore the majority opinion and instead sanction the greed of their major donors.

In November 2015, Chairman Susan Collins, R-Maine, of the Senate Special Committee on Aging and Ranking Member Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, launched a bipartisan investigation of abrupt and dramatic price increases in prescription drugs whose patents had expired. The Committee's investigation centered on Turing Pharmaceuticals, Retrophin, Inc., Valeant Pharmaceuticals International, Inc., and Rodelis Therapeutics — companies that acquired decades-old, off-patent affordable drugs and then raised the prices suddenly and astronomically.

In December of 2016 the Special Committee on Aging came out with a report titled, "Sudden Price Spikes in Off-Patent Prescription Drugs: The Monopoly Business Model that Harms Patients, Taxpayers, and the U.S. Health Care System."

According to the report, "The Committee discovered that each of the four companies followed a business model (with some variation) that enabled them to identify and acquire off-patent sole-source drugs over which they could exercise de facto monopoly pricing power, and then impose and protect astronomical price increases."

Collins and McCaskill are two of the more socially conscious members of the Senate and it seemed that they might be able to address a problem and offer some effective solutions. But even they have been co-opted by the pharmaceutical industry to some degree and their report is a reflection of how lame and ineffective efforts at drug price control can be.

They did a good job of defining a problem that all too many Americans are aware of. But when it came time to offer solutions to the problem the usual ineffective and toothless ideas emerged.

In the report section titled "Policy Responses" they stated, "The Committee hopes that the sunlight shone on the four companies throughout the investigation will help to deter companies from employing a similar business model and exploiting market failures at the expense of patients. Nevertheless, this troubling practice must be stopped to help rein in price spikes in off-patent, decades-old drugs purchased by companies that did not bear the drugs' research and development costs."

Hope should never be a political tool to effect change. We need lawmakers with guts who are willing to fight the big boys and that is not likely to happen any time soon. The report describes a number of strategies to lower generic drug prices, but none appear to be strong enough to make changes that will make drugs more affordable to Americans.

If you want to understand how useless this 131 page report is you only need to read a paragraph buried in the "Policy Responses" section. "The Committee believes there are sound, bipartisan policy solutions that would address the core issues identified by the investigation — market failures that reduce or altogether eliminate competition in decades old, off-patent drugs. With an issue as complex as drug pricing, members understandably have differing views on the merits of the various options available to policymakers, including the responses described in this report. While release of this report does not indicate unanimous support of each of these policy options, we hope that it will contribute to the ongoing discussion."

Meanwhile Americans are suffering and dying because they can't afford medications to slow disease progression or to keep them alive. When will hope be replaced by meaningful action so this deadly can madness stop?

Richard Davis is a registered nurse. He writes from Guilford and welcomes comments at rbdav@comcast.net. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.

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