High on greed

October 10, 2002

IN A SHAMEFUL display of manipulation, the pharmaceutical industry trotted out ailing celebrities last week to help lobby against legislation designed to increase competition from generic drugs.

Talk-show host Montel Williams, who has multiple sclerosis, was among those voicing the drug industry's message that any effort to curb its profits would dim the hopes of people waiting for cures and treatments for such diseases that might otherwise come from new research.

While the occasion marked a new low in tactics, the refrain was very familiar. Every effort over the past half-dozen years to curb soaring drug costs and bring drug coverage within the reach of Medicare and other insurance programs has been greeted by the threat that it would delay the arrival of new miracle drugs.

It's hard to know who's more greedy: the drug industry, which is already among the most profitable in the world, or the mostly Republican lawmakers who take campaign contributions from the drug industry and do its bidding.

A drug benefit for Medicare is already well past the reach of this Congress, doomed last summer by a variety of political cross- currents of which pharmaceutical industry opposition was a critical part.

But the lawmakers could still take a small step forward by enacting a measure already passed by the Senate that would tighten loopholes in patent protection laws.

In order to extend their exclusive right to sell popular brand-name drugs, the pharmaceutical companies have been using technical ploys to keep generic copies from reaching market even after the patents expire.

The Senate-passed bill would limit such patent extensions to 30 months per product, and allow generic manufacturers to challenge "frivolous patents" that make minor changes like the color or shape of the pill to contend they have a new product. According to the Congressional Budget Office, consumers could save $60 billion over 10 years if the measure is enacted.

A similar bill has been introduced in the House, but the Republican leadership won't let it out of committee. House Democrats are trying to force it out through a petition drive that's failing for lack of any Republican support.

GOP leaders believe they have sufficient political cover on the prescription drug issue because the House approved a drug benefit plan for Medicare last spring, which -- at a cost of $350 billion over 10 years -- represented the most sweeping such proposal ever backed by Republicans.

Democrats who run the Senate called that measure too stingy but were unable to win approval for a counterproposal of their own.

Yet, while Republicans have won a tactical victory over the Democrats, they did nothing for their constituents because no form of help in buying prescription drugs ever passed.

Nothing is exactly what the drug companies wanted Congress to do. Voters should demand at least a break for generic drugs before this term ends.

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