Big Drug, Big Oil, bigger rip-offs

June 22, 2008|By DAN RODRICKS

Stand back. Give me some air. Everybody, please, back off. Someone call a doctor. I just read the outside of the bag that came back from the corner pharmacy: $180.38 for 30 capsules of medication that I need to improve the quality of my life and perhaps extend it.

The co-pay was $76.60, but still ...

Someone call the cops!

If Obama gets elected, can we just arrest the people who run the drug companies that charge this kind of price? I say take the CEO and the board of directors and hold them at Gitmo. Put them in dog collars. In a few years, when all their patents expire and their costly brand-name drugs lose market-share to generics, we'll release them.

And while we're at it, can we send a bunch of CIA guys dressed like Ninjas to kidnap the OPEC ministers? We won't hurt them. We'll just take them for a little ride. We'll take them to a mile-high resort in the Rockies, gather them in a big lodge and tell them how it's going to be. We'll have Al Pacino do the talking for us.

Say hello to my little friend!

In 2006, Amy Myers Jaffe, the widely quoted energy expert from Rice University, estimated oil production cost at $15 per barrel of crude in a theoretical OPEC-free marketplace. This was in a year in which crude sold for about $60 a barrel and we paid an average of $2.38 a gallon at the pump. We're paying about $4 a gallon now. Do the math.

We were getting ripped off then. We're getting ripped off now.

Maybe geopolitical tensions, aggravated in recent years by the war in Iraq, have led to this. Maybe it's due to political instability within some of the OPEC partners, particularly in Latin America. But mostly, it's OPEC doing its greedy thing. It's a cartel, after all. They get together for meetings in Vienna, they collude, then hit the all-you-can-eat schnitzel place for lunch.

"[OPEC's] objective is to maximize the wealth transfer from oil-consuming nations by manipulating the international market," Congress' Joint Economic Committee reported in February. "The cartel's ability to increase the oil supply at low cost is not in question."

So does George Bush send commandos into the OPEC HQ?

Of course not. Bush is a Texas Tea man. He probably admires his collusive oil-in-the-blood brothers.

Bush's answer to the oil crisis is to drill for more domestic oil - offshore, in the U.S. continental shelf and in wildlife refuges, even though no one is sure how much crude they'd find there and for how long, and even though it would be years before it had an effect on supply and prices.

Never mind talking up alternative sources to give the nation more energy security, or endorsing significantly higher fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks, or promoting the fast-track development of better, more affordable hybrid vehicles - what Jaffe calls the "critical piece" in an economically progressive future for the United States.

Bush's answer is to drill. John McCain likes the idea, too. American leadership on oil policy is so ridiculous it's depressing.

We're going to get ripped off as long as we consume gasoline at the levels we do - and until we profoundly change our ways, move to alternative vehicles, expand public transportation, open the workplace to more telecommuting, and plan and build new communities with mass transit a central dynamic.

We've been getting ripped off by drug companies for a long time, too, and with the consent and cooperation of government.

Sadly, we don't get to arrest pharmaceutical executives for being greedy and beholden to Wall Street. But we can elect public officials willing to challenge them and their hold on the marketplace.

As The Sun's Jonathan Rockoff reported the other day, Marylanders and patients in 26 other states could face higher costs and delays getting prescriptions filled if Big Drug wins a legislative battle to restrict the sale of generics. Under law, the Food and Drug Administration can certify that a generic drug is safe enough to take the place of one with a brand name. That gives the states the power to authorize your local druggist to fill a prescription with a lower-priced generic - unless your doctor specifically orders the brand-name variety. Big Drug wants to make the switch difficult by requiring pharmacists to inform doctors or get their permission for the substitution first.

This is a movement in state legislatures - to protect Big Drug and keep costs of prescription medication ridiculously high. In Maryland, a first-term state delegate from Baltimore's 40th District, Barbara Robinson, sponsored a bill to this end in the state legislature. Robinson has no medical background; one of her online biographies describes her as "author, businesswoman, entrepreneur, national and international motivational speaker, educator, lecturer, seminar presenter, consultant, and radio talk-show host." When she campaigned for a seat in the legislature, her position on health care included this statement: "Seniors should not have to choose between buying food or paying for medicine."

So why back the restriction on generics?

"I, for one, don't like generic anything," she was quoted in Rockoff's story. "They say it's the same, but it's not the same."

That's fine when you're shopping for a new suit, if you can afford the designer label. As for prescriptions, most of us would prefer the choice of a cheaper generic. Getting ripped off makes you sick.

Drugs are supposed to make you feel better, not worse. And pols, from Washington to Annapolis, are supposed to be on the side of average citizens, not the rip-off artists.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

Dan Rodricks can be heard on Midday, Mondays through Thursdays, noon to 2 p.m., on 88.1, WYPR-FM.

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