Columns » Bob McCord

Drug companies cash in

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Like most old retired people, I have to buy a lot of medicines, and the costs have gotten so high that I can’t believe them. I’m supposed to use a nose spray every day, and the bottle lasts only a month and costs $79. One pill really seems to make me feel better, but each one of them costs $4.22. That’s the price at my neighborhood drug store. I looked around, but the price was $4.66 at Wal-Mart and $4.83 at Walgreen.

Yes, I know that years ago I should have bought some insurance to pay for medicine, but I didn’t, and I am also aware that our president has designed a system of health care that people like me should be signing up to get in. I haven’t been able to do that yet because I don’t understand it. Despite my reading of a three-inch stack of explanation and hearing people at community meetings, I can’t even decide which of the 260 companies I should join.

Many states, including Arkansas, have had to put up millions of dollars to supply medicine for the early joiners because the federal government wasn’t quite ready to start on Jan. 1. Columnist Paul Krugman says, “The administration’s idea of health care reform is to take what’s wrong with our system and make it worse.”

I talked with Rep. Marion Berry, who used to be a pharmacist. He has opposed President Bush’s health care plan from the start, and he believes it will increase the cost of medicine because the law allows the companies to raise their prices whenever they want to. Berry thinks prices will go up again and soon because the insurance companies have convinced the Republicans in Congress that they must have more money.

“The whole system of Bush’s health care has been created by the pharmaceutical and the insurance companies,” Berry said.

There’s no doubt that the pharmaceutical companies are very clever. They have manufacturers in places like Singapore and Ireland because workers are cheaper. They sell the same medicines in other countries for less than what they charge in the United States. The state of Illinois, bothered about the cost of the 11 most popular drugs being sold in the state, discovered that in Great Britain, Canada and Ireland the same 11 drugs were being sold for 66 percent less than in Illinois.

Last week the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that the pharmaceutical companies were spending $21 billion a year on marketing their products. Surely you have seen the Lunesta butterfly flying into bedrooms helping women and men fall asleep. And of course you haven’t missed seeing dad and his son going fishing thanks to Aricept giving dad his memory back.

But the big surprise was that the companies were spending heavily for giving drug samples, gifts and travel to doctors and paying them for speeches, teaching and research. Every patient has seen the young handsome men and women wheeling their suitcases of samples into their doctor’s inner office. The association says that spending this amount of money is a conflict of interest for medical professionals and recommends that academic medical centers ban most or all of the giving of gifts, samples, travel money and money for speeches and studies.

Of course, the goodies for doctors have been one reason why their patients are having to pay ridiculous prices for medicines. Doctors should want to do anything to lower the price of medicine. However, there can be an argument about sample medicines. Doctors sometimes give patients two medicines to see which one is the best, and samples can make that cheaper. And, occasionally a patient is so sick that a doctor wants to start a medicine immediately, which can happen if the doctor has samples. But money for TV, fancy trips, meals, gifts and speeches ought to be considered unprofessional and stopped.

Today’s Washington politicians are obviously fond of pharmaceutical companies and have just put them under the new American Jobs Creation Action law, which is for companies that build more factories and hire more Americans. The law gives these companies a one-year tax break on profits earned abroad and brought home: A rate of 5.25 percent, compared with the usual rate of 35 percent. The New York Times estimated that this will mean a savings of something like $80 billion for the pharmaceutical companies.

Many countries control the prices of medicines. That wouldn’t be proper in the United States. But there have to be ways to keep the pharmaceutical companies from being greedy.

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