We are in election season and there is much talk about the high price of prescription drugs and promises by politicians to do something about it. Don’t hold your breath. Drug prices are like the weather: Everyone complains about it but no one ever does anything to change it.
Big Pharma, the name given to the global pharmaceutical industry, spends more money on lobbying in the United States than any other industry and it outspends the others by a wide margin. Last year the pharmaceutical industry reported spending $166,038,670 on lobbying activities. There are a couple of significant takeaways here.
That is a lot of money. How can they afford to spend so much? The simple answer to that question is that they can spend so much because they make so much. We pay more for prescription drugs than any other nation on earth. These large profits are driven by the refusal of the United States government to take action to reduce prices. There are many ways the government could do that, including reducing patent protections, increasing competition from generics, legislating price reductions, and importing drugs from other countries where they are cheaper.
Big Pharma spends that much on lobbying because it believes it is cost effective to do so. In other words, spending this much is a bargain, if it keeps the United States from acting meaningfully to reduce prices and thereby insuring the big profits continue to roll in.
Another little secret is that this money flows to both Republicans and Democrats. By donating to and lobbying both sides, the drug companies avoid the problem of having backed the losing side and being on the wrong end of price reform legislation. This is why it is so hard to get action on drug prices despite the changes in administrations over the years.
The drug companies are not fools. They have been going to Washington for a long time and know exactly what they are doing and how to do it. Your representatives in Washington will talk a good game about reducing the cost of drugs to the American people, but, in the end, little will actually happen. There may be some cosmetic changes or some big announcements but, when the rubber meets the road, not much will change. When they do pass some legislation, it often gets bogged down in the courts where the pharmaceutical companies go to stop changes that get through Congress or the White House.
Drug companies also spend huge amounts on advertising to get patients to ask their doctors for a certain medicine. If you listen closely to the warnings spoken in a rapid monotone on these ads, you wonder why anyone would ever risk taking the medication. As with lobbying, the drug companies have the research to show that their outlays on advertising pay big returns. When a patient pesters a doctor about a particular drug, the doctor may just give in to avoid making the patient unhappy.
The drug companies also spend large amounts lobbying doctors to prescribe their products. They have representatives who go from office to office with free samples and gifts of appreciation. This is yet another investment that the drug companies have found pays off well in the end.
Lastly, there are the out and out bribes paid to doctors to prescribe costly drugs. One drug company based here in Scottsdale hired a stripper as a director of marketing on the grounds that she knew how to communicate with doctors. I am sure she did. These bribery schemes are often part of a larger fraud on the health care system. Sometimes the drugs involved are useless. Sometimes the treatments are faked but invoices are submitted to the government. A search on line for these frauds will keep you entertained for hours.
I am probably foolish to keep hoping for a change in light of all the history of drug company success in fighting it off but I keep thinking this can’t go on forever. We need to make a change. Vote for someone who will make a change and keep reminding them of their promises once they get in office.