Big Pharma: A political swamp monster that targets Americans

Melina Druga
Melina Druga
Big Pharma: A political swamp monster that targets Americans

In Ohio, a battle is brewing. The Drug Price Relief Act will be on the ballot Nov. 7. The act is intended to bar state agencies from purchasing prescriptions at prices higher than those paid by the Department of Veterans affairs which has a 20 percent to 24 percent discount. Whether this is good or bad for the Ohio residents depends on whom you ask.

The act is similar to California’s Proposition 61, which failed in 2016 after the pharmaceutical industry spent $109 million opposing it.

Opponents say the act will not work as intended and instead will cause prices to rise while simultaneously limiting access to prescription drugs.

Proponents say prescription prices overall will fall.

“If pricing is not modified or regulated at least in some manner, it’s somewhat akin to a mugger confronting an innocent person on the streets, and the person on the street has no choice. They either pay or they suffer the consequences,” Robert L. Ruff, former national director for neurology at the Veterans Health Administration told reporters.

Ready for battle

Opponents have formed the Ohioans Against the Deceptive Rx Ballot Issue. The group has already begun airing ads with the message the ballot issue will not do as is promised.

The act could cause drug prices to rise for veterans by increasing VA costs $4 billion annually, the group claims.

Ohio Taxpayers for Lower Drug Prices supports the act, saying it will save residents $400 million annually. It, too, has begun running TV ads. The first appeared after Memorial Day, featuring Max Cleland, a former Democratic senator and the former head of Veterans Affairs. Cleland also is a triple amputee and currently serves as Secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission.

The ad ends with Cleland saying, “drug companies don’t know sacrifice. But you and I do.”

If the act passes, an estimated 3.7 million Ohioans would be affected.

The issue of drug prices, however, goes far beyond one individual state. Drug prices in the U.S. are higher than rest of the world.

It's us vs. the world

Prescription drug spending in the United States was $425 billion in 2015, according to IMS Institute for Healthcare Infomatics.

Drug prices have been high for years, if not decades. In 2010, HuffPost compared the prices of three drugs to the prices in eight other nations. While all three prescriptions cost less than $100 elsewhere in the world, in the U.S., the cheapest ranged from $125 to $334 while the most expensive costs a whopping $540.

Why the large price difference? It’s partially because of Patent Law, but also because of direct-to-consumer marketing campaigns, a practice that’s illegal in other nations.

Steve Pearson, head of the Institute for Clinical and Economic Review, told Wired the problem has many facets, but they all center on Americans being kept in the dark about the pharmaceutical industry.

Americans have no idea what the price of pharmaceuticals should be because the cost of development isn’t made public. Neither is information on how customers are paying for medications or how medications compare to competitors.

Big Pharma welds power

Another part of the problem, maybe the only problem, is the enormous power the pharmaceutical companies hold.

Last year, the pharmaceutical industry spent $245.8 billion on lobbying and so far this year has spent $78.5 billion, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Moreover, over the past 20 years, the industry has spent $3.5 trillion. These figures means the industry has spent more on lobbying than any other group.

Not only have they spent more on lobbying campaigns, but there are approximately two pharmaceutical industry lobbyists for ever member of Congress.

Last year, the industry spent $58 million funding political campaigns, according to the Center.

Both Democrats and Republicans have made it their mission to reduce drug costs. However, with the power the pharmaceutical industry welds and with the industry blaming pharmacy benefit managers for drug prices, reducing costs may be nearly impossible.

Photo credit:  Montgomery County Planning Commission