Monday, May 31, 2010

Fighting for lower drug prices, or how to counteract Big Pharma's lobbying

At a recent talk I gave on health care, the question came up: why isn't our government negotiating with the pharmaceutical industry to lower drug prices in the US? My audience was a group of sharp-minded Mount Holyoke College alumni, and almost all of them were on some kind of prescription medicine. While private health plans (which insure most working Americans) don't have the clout to negotiate more reasonable drug pricing, the US government, which funds Medicare and Medicaid, does. Yet it doesn't use it, unlike in Canada and many European countries, where the government ensures low drug prices through tough-minded negotiations.

Why? The reason is glaringly obvious: Congress won't give the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) the authority to negotiate lower drug prices because too many of its members are in bed with the industry. That's why HHS was expressly prohibited from negotiating lower drug prices in the Medicare Part D legislation enacted during the Bush administration.

One has only to look at the list of top industry spending on campaign contributions and lobbying in Washington to understand. This past year, the pharmaceutical/health products industry headed the list of industries spending millions of dollars to sway the opinion of Congressional and executive policy makers, according to Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research organization that tracks money in U.S. politics. This industry, which includes big pharma, biotech and the medical device industry, spent $263 million in 2009, ahead of the second (business associations), the third (oil and gas -- gee, could this be why BP was allowed to drill without the proper environmental review?) and the fourth highest (insurance companies) industry spenders.

It's difficult for individual consumers to have much of a voice in the face of such well-oiled (forgive the pun) special interests. But it doesn't hurt to try. So I will repeat what I told the Mount Holyoke crowd: Pick up the phone or write a letter/email to your Congressional representatives telling them that you want Congress to pass a law giving HHS the power to negotiate lower drug prices for Medicare and Medicaid (and while you're at it, ask for a ban on direct to consumer advertising too).

But don't stop there. Organize a town meeting with your Congressional representative or a mass street protest in Washington. If Americans devoted an iota of the time and energy to drug pricing reform that they shower on their favorite sports team, just think what this country could accomplish!