On the heels of the Epi-Pen® scandal (well, at least I think it is scandalous, Epi-Pen® and Predatory Pricing: You thought our health system was designed for people’s health?, September 3, 2016) in which Mylan Pharmaceuticals and its CEO Heather Bresch raised the price of this life-saving medication 500% (and her salary by about the same degree), that itself followed last year’s Daraprim® scandal where Turing Pharmaceuticals and its CEO Martin Shkreli raised the price of this anti-parasitic drug over 5000% (Drug prices and corporate greed: there may be limits to our gullibility, September 27, 2015), we have some good news. Sort of. Brent Saunders, CEO of Valeant Pharmaceuticals, also identified last year for hefty price increases in two life-saving heart drugs,has now announced it will keep its price increases under 10%. Of course, it will raise the price 9.9%, which is certainly less than 10%, and even less than 9.99%, which they could have done and still been below 10%. There is speculation that this may have been in response to proposed federal legislation that would have increased the scrutiny on drug price increases of 10% or more, but of course we cannot know for sure.
The predatory greed of drug companies is becoming legendary, threatening to eclipse that of insurance companies as the leading bad guys in keeping Americans from being able to afford the medical care that they need. After all, insurance companies have increased every form of payment (premiums, co-insurance, co-payments and deductibles) that people, the insured, need to pay out of their own pockets in an effort to decrease the probability that they will be bankrupted when they need medical care. This is sometimes justified by the risks that they take; particularly by the “adverse selection” that occurs because it is the sick, rather than healthy, people who were most likely to sign up for insurance under the ACA’s insurance exchanges. The “individual mandate” of ACA was supposed to prevent this, but the penalties people have to pay are far less than the cost of buying insurance for many (if they are unsubsidized), and maybe they won’t even be caught. Or get sick.
Of course, the degree to which insurance companies are actually losing money rather than simply making less profit than they would like is uncertain, but it is clear that, at least in some markets, it is close. The transfer of many patient-borne costs from premiums to co-insurance, co-payments, and deductibles is designed to keep premiums from going even higher, but of course impacts the sick more. In (at least slight) contrast, the price increases of pharmaceuticals can only be justified by an ethos of “charge what the market will bear”, and make as much as possible before regulators come down on them. In a really ‘cool’ effort reported by the New York Times on September 16, 2016, Mylan is trying to get the federal government to add Epi-Pen to its list of life-saving preventive medications. This would mean direct users would not have to pay so much, but Mylan would continue receive its outrageous price – supported by all of us, as federal taxpayers. Now, there’s a really terrible solution! (Good solution: lower the price. A lot.)
And they have been doing it for a long time. Pharmaceutical companies bought dinners, bought presents, and bought trips for doctors who prescribed their drugs. There has been some clamping down on the most egregious excesses in recent years, but they have not been eliminated. Especially concerning are the revelations (no news to physicians) of the aggressive promotion of opiod pain relievers to doctors, and their contribution to the incredible epidemic of prescription opioid addiction in the US today (48,000 women died of prescription drug overdose between 1999 and 2010, a period during which prescription drug addiction increased over 400% among women and 237% among men, according to the American Society for Addiction Medicine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported:
We now know that overdoses from prescription opioid pain relievers are a driving factor in the 15-year increase in opioid overdose deaths. Since 1999, the amount of prescription opioids sold in the U.S. nearly quadrupled, yet there has not been an overall change in the amount of pain that Americans report. Deaths from prescription opioids—drugs like oxycodone, hydrocodone, and methadone—have also quadrupled since 1999.
The entire campaign to “eliminate pain” was largely supported by opioid manufacturers, such as Purdue and Abbott through their creative marketing to physicians. The most “funny”, reported by STAT, was the use by a drug rep of creatively-arranged donuts to catch the attention of an orthopedist who would not otherwise meet with him, by appealing to his sweet tooth. It is not, of course, really funny, and it is almost worse that physicians could (and maybe still can) be bought not by trips to the Bahamas but by a box of donuts!
Speaking of donuts, we have the even more incredible exposé in the Times that for decades, beginning in the 1950s, the sugar industry worked assiduously to fund and support researchers whose work blamed dietary fat, rather than refined carbohydrates (sugar) for the prevalence of heart disease, (“How the sugar industry shifted blame to fat”, September 12, 2016). This was not a one or two time payoff to a couple of researchers, but a continued campaign over more than a generation to have the scientific community, and thus the rest of us, minimize the impact of sugar on heart disease. This work forestalled the more recent campaigns to limit sugar-containing foods, especially soft drinks, and was a major contributor to an epidemic even greater than opioid addiction, obesity and its related health effects. Sugar is not a prescription drug, but it probably has had more negative health consequences than all prescription drugs together.
So who can we trust? I have often argued for the scientific community, but such reports of corruption of scientific research are sobering; at least, we can say that today there are increased safeguards in place. Clearly we cannot trust politicians; while they will respond to the crises in the news (like drug price increases and such) they are dependent on contributions from large corporations, and those large corporations are pursuing their financial interests. Whether directly involved in our medical care, like insurance companies and drug companies and hospital chains, or dramatically affecting our health like the high-calories food industry (including sugar), or polluting and destroying our environment like many energy companies, our interests (at least as far as our health is concerned) are not their interests, and there is often (or usually) little overlap between the two. As a physician colleague put it, “It’s always worse than you think … even if what you were thinking is pretty bad.”
Pursuit of financial gain by such companies is not in the interest of our public, or private individual, health. The most vulnerable of us – the poorest, sickest, youngest and oldest and least empowered – suffer first and most, but all of us suffer. Drug prices should be regulated tightly, and competition (including pricing as in other countries or import of drugs) should be encouraged; insurance should be single-payer, and the impact on the public’s health the main criterion in deciding on environmental pollution.
Profit should have no place in determining our health or health care.