While at work yesterday, sitting in the employee lounge for my 15 minute coffee break, I could not help but notice the new pharmaceutical ad playing on the flat screen TV. It was your typical “slice of life” ad that Big Pharma likes to run, showing grandpa working in his wood shop, or a young chef baking a cake, or a mother dancing at her daughter’s wedding, you know; the sort of Norman Rockwell feel good stuff. In this case, while I can’t recall the name of the drug or the slice of life acted out on the TV screen, I did hear the announcer mention that this new drug was for those who are having difficulty with an opioid addiction and for whom another drug, whose name I can’t recall, is not working. The ad went on to show the people enjoying life, presumably having taken this new drug and now free of opioid addiction. The last few seconds was a fast talking announcer telling you to ask your doctor and then list the many possible side affects. You know the drill.
What stuck me about this was that opioid addiction is now as commonplace as psoriasis, erectile dysfunction, diabetes, or any other common aliment that the drug companies are trying to make a buck off of. Only in this case, the ailment was started by Big Pharma and now, adding insult to injury, Big Pharma is offering a cure, at a price. It’s like the arsonist offering to sell you access to the fire hydrant. Anything for a buck.
It does not have to be this way. As economist Dean Baker points out, government funding of pharmaceutical research is now accomplished via the patent process. Corporations argue that the costs of developing drugs is so high, they need big government to underwrite the cost by granting monopoly rights of the sale of such drugs to the public. In the case of new opioids, this proved to be a disaster. We essentially handed companies like Purdue Pharma a license to print money, as much as they wanted for as long as the patent lasted. The Sackler family became America’s newest Billionaire Family. Ah, the American Dream fulfilled. God Bless Capitalism. All hail the Free market. Purdue Pharma, like any company, exists to make a profit. That’s capitalism. Who could blame Purdue Pharma for simply wanting to increase sales? Sure, some people were hurt by their product, but some people get hurt in car accidents with with their Ford Mustangs, and it’s not like that’s Ford’s responsibility.
Capitalism is fine with consumer goods. Health care, pharmaceuticals, matters of life and death are not “consumer goods”. Allowing them to be governed as such lead to the opioid crisis.
There is a simple remedy. Again, as Dean Baker points out, all we need to do is have 100% funding of all pharmaceutical research and development. As it stands, our federal government is already responsible for 75% of all new pharmaceutical discoveries, so this would not be a massive change in policy; more an expansion of something that is already working for the public good. Yes, this will mean higher taxes.
If you are still reading my post at this point, that’s a good sign. Higher taxes are inevitable under this plan, but along with higher taxes will come lower costs for pharmaceuticals as all drugs will be generic. Also, under this plan, capitalism will not be as much of a factor, clearly not enough so that one can become a billionaire by selling generic drugs and so, things like the opioid epidemic will be a thing of the past. Finally, once we get to the point where we have universal single payer, M4A or whatever you want to call it, we’ll all be better off. Okay, not all of us, the Sacklers and their ilk will suffer. I am content to let that happen.