Americans need to reclaim the concept of the public good, and nowhere is that more important than in health policy.
Law Professor Fran Quigley has a new book coming out that examines the interface–or more accurately, the lack of an interface–between Big Pharma, Congress and the common good. Quartz recently published a review of the book, and began by referring to the infamous “Pharma Bro,” Martin Shkreli, who purchased a life-saving drug that had been on the market for some time, and jacked up the price astronomically–because he could.
Shkreli is not an outlier, according to Indiana University law professor Fran Quigley’s new book Prescription for the People. The pharmaceutical industry jacks up prices on life-saving drugs to extort windfall profits from desperate patients as a matter of course. That’s an immoral way to treat medicine, Quigley argues. The solution? Stop treating medicine as private property—and start treating it as a public good, like education or infrastructure.
It’s one thing to allow private companies and markets to set prices for items like big-screen TVs or cars, Quigley explains via email. In those cases, “purchasers can compare prices and walk away from the transaction if they wish.” But a patient with cancer or a child diagnosed with Type II diabetes can’t just walk away. “That kind of choice is not present when the good in question is life-or-death and there are no options for comparison shopping,” he writes.
One of the great virtues of Quigley’s book is its explanation of the major role government plays in drug research. Big Pharma has long justified high prices by citing the costs of R & D; as Quigley points out, much of that research is funded with our tax dollars–but drug companies, not taxpayers, enjoy the return on that investment.
Furthermore, drug companies don’t actually funnel the bulk of their profits into research and development. Case in point: Reuters has reported that Pfizer made $45.7 billion in revenue in 2014, of which it spent $14.1 billion on sales and marketing and $8.4 billion on research.
The book details the various ways in which drug companies’ concern for the bottom line takes precedence over concern for the public’s health, and it goes into considerable detail about the perverse public policies that have facilitated those companies’ profitability.
The genesis of those favorable policies? Follow the money.
How did we get to this point? “In the last 40 years, the pharmaceutical industry has deployed billions of dollars of lobbying and political campaign contributions” to change laws to their benefit, Quigley says. One of their most remarkable successes was the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act, which allowed corporations to patent publicly-funded research. This means that pharmaceutical corporations essentially receive monopolies to sell government-created products, “truly one of the most bullet-proof business models in modern history,” Quigley says.
Quigley also takes aim at current patent practices.
The US should even consider ending medicine patents altogether, Quigley argues. “The patent system fails miserably in making medicines available to those who need them,” he says. Studies show that 70% of newly marketed drugs make no therapeutic advances on existing medicines; they are “me-too” drugs that try to carve out a portion of already existing markets for things like cholesterol medication, without bringing any improvements to the table. Furthermore, patents prevent competitors from building on previous research. Expanding grants for patent-free, open-source research would focus medical research on innovation, and make research findings available to everyone immediately, Quigley argues.
Quigley is not the only observer who faults the current patent system; economist Dean Baker goes considerably farther:
Are corporate patent and copyright monopolies a form of government-licensed private taxation? Dean Baker of CEPR thinks so: “Government-granted patent and copyright monopolies are actually much more important in determining future flows of income than debt. In the case of prescription drugs alone, patent and related protections raise the price of drugs by close to $370 billion a year over the free market price, a bit less than 2.0 percent of GDP. This is considerably larger than the current interest burden of the debt, which is approximately 1.6 percent of GDP, net of money refunded from the Federal Reserve Board to the Treasury. These monopolies are effectively like privately collected taxes.”
The book is Prescription for the People.
I know Fran Quigley, I know both his passion and his meticulous attention to fact and evidence. He’s a clear writer and a clear thinker. You should buy the book.