As we search for methods to rapidly expand testing and potential vaccines for COVID-19, it’s worth re-evaluating our system of researching, developing, and selling pharmaceutical drugs in this country. Our current system is almost universally regarded as being punitively expensive with consumers reporting being forced to ration medication such as insulin. Americans dying because they can’t afford their prescriptions seems like the clearest evidence that we need a new system.
Costs are so high for 3 reasons.
1.) Consolidated industry that works like a cartel.
2.) Prices cover the cost of advertising.
3.) Innovation yields patents and the power to retain longstanding monopoly power.
Reforming each of these causes of unaffordability requires passing legislation over the power of an industry that makes massive campaign contributions and has an army of lobbyists. Campaign finance reform would unequivocally grease the wheels for prescription drug reform.
The socialist solution to reigning in the prescription drug industry is nationalization with the case being that government can deliver lower costs to consumers because it doesn’t need to make a profit and report earnings to investors. The problem with that is that a profit motive actually works effectively as a driver of innovation. And we are innovating. We are just innovating the wrong things. Pharmaceutical innovation is not prioritized by the drugs in greatest social demand. It’s driven by what can deliver the most short-term profits. While cosmetic drug innovations might benefit investors on pay day, curing Alzheimer’s should be a greater priority. Bernie Sanders actually has a very good bill to address this . It would swap out patents with cash prizes based on the most critical social needs. Drugs designed for curing a debilitating disease would mean a larger cash prize. He describes it in full detail here: https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/senate-bill/495/
There is no tangible merit to securing federally guaranteed monopoly power to private corporations. Our patent system has got to go. By eliminating the patent system, we would see much greater competition and a supply chain that could more rapidly reach more people.
To reign in drug prices, it also makes sense to join the rest of the world in banning pharmaceutical companies from running advertisements whose high costs are passed on to consumers. This is a unique feature of the American healthcare system that should be eliminated. Let’s allow medical professionals to consult their patients’ drug consumption. In order to put additional pressure on pharmaceutical companies to deliver affordable prices, the government should manufacture generic drugs as a public option as described here by Elizabeth Warren https://www.warren.senate.gov/newsroom/press-releases/schakowsky-warren-reintroduce-affordable-drug-manufacturing-act-legislation-to-radically-reduce-drug-prices-through-public-manufacturing-of-prescription-drugs
A regulated, competitive pharmaceutical market with a public option and rules prohibiting corporate political spending will expedite critical lifesaving innovation and lower costs for consumers, and it’s also a political winner. There is almost no issue with as small of a constituency as the supporters of the prescription drugs industry. Big Pharma consistently is reported in the top two industry most loathed by the general public. We can run on this agenda and win in races up and down the ballot. This can win in suburban districts that went from Romney to Hillary as well as in rust belt districts that went from Obama to Trump. Joe Biden and every Democrat running for Congress and State Legislature should forthrightly campaign on this platform with aggressive rhetoric and passion. However, this will only be effective if they swear off campaign contributions from Big Pharma and will have the greatest effect if they swear on corporate money altogether. We can run and win on an agenda of lower prescription drug costs with big, structural change but only if we have the political will to do so.