Controlling drug costs

March 24, 2003|By SUN STAFF

WITH A SINGLE blow, Congress could curb the expense of Medicare and Medicaid, give public and private employers a break on health insurance for workers and grant the uninsured greater access to life-changing medicines.

All the lawmakers have to do is put the interests of their constituents ahead of pharmaceutical industry profits by tackling the issue of scandalously high drug prices.

It seems obvious at a time when the expense of health care is once again rising out of control that the federal government should end the sweet deal that allows the pharmaceutical industry to benefit from research and advertising subsidies as well as generous patent protections.

But legislative efforts to make even modest changes in that arrangement have been routinely thwarted for years by the awesome power of the prescription drug makers.

They've got great products, the wonder medications that not only save and improve lives but also reduce hospital and surgical costs. They've got an army of lobbyists, enough to assign one to each of the 535 legislators on Capitol Hill. And they've got loads of money for political contributions: $23 million in individual political action committee and soft money donations were made during the 2002 election cycle, 75 percent of it to Republicans.

Theirs are among the most profitable businesses in the world. But they greet any move to curb prices with the claim that it would rob precious resources from research on the next generation of miracle cures.

This line of baloney is doubtless just an excuse to make it easier for lawmakers to do the industry's bidding, but it's time they stopped swallowing it.

The place to start is by passing legislation, already overwhelmingly approved once by the Senate, that comes at the problem with a three-pronged assault. That package would ease access to the markets for generic drugs; authorize states to negotiate with drug companies on behalf of their residents for group discounts; and allow pharmacists and drug wholesalers to reimport U.S.-made drugs from Canada, where they are sold much more cheaply.

The reimportation proposal poses practical problems of ensuring drug safety. But it symbolizes the absurdity of a situation where Americans are forced to pay top dollar for drugs they helped to develop and protected from competition.

In the absence of a more sweeping assault on the price problem, the Senate should give this package another try. Perhaps the House and President Bush will find they've lost their taste for baloney.

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