THE GREED OF THE PHARMACEUTICAL INDUSTRY Part 1

The unconstrained greed of pharmaceutical corporations is abundantly clear on multiple fronts:

  • Huge price increases on existing drugs with no reasonable justification (See my previous posts on this here and here.)
  • Inhibiting competition however possible (See my previous posts that include this topic here and here.)
  • Blocking regulation and oversight (See my previous post here.)
  • Selling and distributing narcotics that are clearly being diverted to the black market (See my previous posts on this here, here, and here.)

Despite Trump’s campaign rhetoric about bringing down the cost of drugs, his administration has not taken any significant steps to make drugs more affordable. Roughly 45 million Americans don’t buy drugs that are prescribed for them because they can’t afford them.

President Trump has nominated Alex Azar to be Secretary of Health and Human Services. Azar was the CEO of the drug corporation Eli Lilly when it increased the price of an insulin product from $74 to $269. In Sweden, the same medicine is sold for the (still profitable) price of $18.38. Insulin is the life-saving drug needed by the 30 million Americans with diabetes. [1]

The production of insulin is effectively controlled by a cartel of three drug corporations, Eli Lilly, Novo Nordisk, and Sanofi, that produce more than 90% of the insulin products in the world. Because of the inflated prices in the U.S., the typical American with Type 1 diabetes spends about $571 each month on insulin. Many can’t afford the full amount they need, so they risk serious health consequences by stretching their supply and under-medicating their diabetes. Some die as a result. Worldwide, the leading cause of death for a child with Type 1 diabetes is lack of insulin.

The pharmaceutical corporations’ typical response to criticism of drug price increases is that they need the increases to pay for research and development (R&D). However, this is simply not true. [2] Insulin, for example, was developed at a publicly funded lab at the University of Toronto in 1921. Eli Lilly was a small company when it signed an agreement with the University for the right to sell insulin in 1922. Clearly, greed, not R&D costs, is fueling the insulin price increases.

Today, the U.S. National Institute of Health (NIH) annually spends $34 billion to fund university research. When researchers develop new drugs, corporate drug manufacturers typically purchase the rights to them, tweak them, patent them, and then market them to maximize their profits. The U.S. needs to legislate a new, public health-focused drug licensing system that prioritizes access and affordability, along with innovation, instead of profit.

Another example of price gouging by drug corporations comes from the response to the opioid crisis and the increased demand for the drug naloxone, the antidote for a narcotic overdose. With over 60,000 Americans dying of drug overdoses each year, emergency responders, not-for-profit human service organizations, and family members want to have naloxone readily available to save lives. However, the drug manufacturers have responded by jacking up the prices of naloxone and its various delivery systems. Kaleo corporation has raised the price of its easy-to-use, naloxone auto-injector from $690 in 2014 to $4,500 in 2016. Amphastar Pharmaceuticals has raised its wholesale price for naloxone from $20 to $40. Adapt Pharma’s new Narcan nasal spray came on the market in 2015 at $150. These prices and the opioid crisis have increased the drug corporations’ revenue from sales of naloxone from $12 million in 2011 to $274 million in 2016. Economics, specifically economies of scale, would suggest that the price should be going down with increased demand, not up.

As prices for naloxone have risen, first responders and community-based non-profits who provide services to people with drug problems, who are on the front-lines of the opioid crisis, are finding that their tight budgets do not allow them to have the number of naloxone doses they’d like to have. [3] Naloxone has been available since 1985, although new delivery vehicles, such as a nasal spray, have been developed recently. Public funding through the NIH has contributed to the development of and conducting of clinical trials for some of these products. Only five corporations make naloxone and they have been working to block competitors. One of them is Mylan Pharmaceuticals, infamous for its price gouging with its EpiPen product.

Some drug companies are simply investors, buying the rights to drugs, often life-saving ones, that they believe can deliver big profits, usually through dramatic price increases. A recent example is NextSource, a start-up with no research and development costs. In 2013, it bought the rights to a cancer treatment drug with low demand and therefore a single producer. It was priced at $50 per dose. In three years, NextSource has raised the price to $768 per dose.

Soaring cancer drug costs are driving the cost of treatment well over $100,000 a year in many cases. As a result, some patients delay treatment to figure out how they can get the treatments paid for. A study earlier this year found that 24 cancer drugs had, on average, quadrupled in price over the last 8 years. [4]

In an interesting example of how our corporate media sometimes cover increasing drug prices – putting a positive spin on outrageous corporate behavior – The Boston Globe recently had a big headline on the front page of its Business Section that read “Price hikes on top-selling drugs were a lot smaller this year.” The article began with “Average annual price increases have declined at least four years in a row for 20 of America’s top-selling brand-name prescription drugs.” Nowhere in the article does it mention that the 6.9% increase over the last year is three times the rate of inflation or that over the last 5 years the cost of these drugs is up 66%. On a subsequent page the article does note that “these drugs have increased by an average of 213 percent since their launch, well out-pacing inflation.” It also notes that many of these drugs are very expensive with seven having an average, annual cost per patient of between $59,000 and $92,000. [5]

In my next post, I’ll discuss why the pharmaceutical corporations can get away with this price gouging and what we can do about it.

[1]      Zaitchik, A., 11/28/17, “Beyond the planet of the pharma bros,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/beyond-planet-pharma-bros)

[2]      Kesselheim, A.S., Avorn, J., & Sarparwari, A., 8/23/16, “The high cost of prescription drugs in the United States: Origins and prospects for reform,” The Journal of the American Medical Association

[3]      Denvir, D., 12/15/17, “These pharmaceutical companies are making a killing off the opioid crisis,” The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/these-pharmaceutical-companies-are-making-a-killing-off-the-opioid-crisis/)

[4]      Berr, J., 12/26/17, “Price of 40-year-old cancer drug hiked 1,400% by new owners,” CBS News, MoneyWatch (https://www.cbsnews.com/news/cancer-drug-lomustine-price-hiked-1400-percent-by-new-owners/)

[5]      Robbins, R., 12/29/17, “Price hikes on top-selling drugs were a lot smaller this year,” The Boston Globe

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