Republicans and Democrats don't agree on much. But one thing they would agree on if they knew the facts is that because of the cozy relationship big drug companies have with our lawmakers in Washington, Americans pay far more for their medications than people anywhere else on the planet.
As a consequence, our health insurance premiums are much higher than they should be. And our Medicare program is costing both taxpayers and beneficiaries billions of dollars more than necessary.
Americans who are uninsured are at an even greater disadvantage: many of them have no choice but to put their health at risk because they can't afford the medications their doctors prescribe for them.
Drug makers have so much influence in Washington that they've been able to kill numerous proposals over the years that would enable the U.S. government to regulate drug prices like most other countries do. Between 1988 and 2012, the pharmaceutical industry spent more on lobbying than any other special interest, forking over a total of $2.6 billion on lobbying activities, according to OpenSecrets.org. That's far more than even banks and oil and gas companies spent.
That money helped them get a very sweet deal when members of Congress were drafting legislation that would eventually be the Medicare Part D prescription drug program. Drug makers were able to get their friends in Congress to insert language in the Part D legislation that prohibits the federal government from seeking the best prices from pharmaceutical companies.
According to a recent analysis by Health Care for America Now (HCAN), an advocacy group, the 11 largest drug companies reported $711.4 billion in profits over the 10 years ending in 2012, much of it coming from the Medicare program. They reaped $76.3 billion in profits in 2006 alone, 34 percent more than in 2005, the year before the Part D program went into effect.
"Americans pay significantly more than any other country for the exact same drugs," said HCAN Executive Director Ethan Rome.
How much more do we pay than residents of other countries? Here are a few examples of what we pay on average for six brand name drugs compared to what residents of other countries pay, according to the International Federation of Health Plans:
-- Celebrex (for pain) - U.S.: $162; Canada: $53
-- Cymbalta (for depression and anxiety) - U.S: $176; France: $47
-- Lipitor (for high cholesterol) - U.S.: $124; New Zealand: $6
-- Nasonex (for nasal allergies) - U.S: $108; U.K.: $12
-- Vytorin (for high cholesterol) - U.S: $123; Argentina: $31
-- Nexium (for acid reflux) - U.S.: $123; Spain: $18
The Congressional Budget Office says that if Medicare could get the same bulk purchasing discounts on prescription drugs as state Medicaid programs already get, the federal government would save at least $137 billion over 10 years.
In his proposed budget for 2014, President Obama is asking Congress to require drug companies to sell their medications to Medicare at the best price they offer private insurance companies, which is what they are required to do for Medicaid.
On April 16, several members of Congress, led by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), introduced legislation to require drug companies to provide rebates to the federal government on drugs used by people who are eligible for both Medicare and Medicaid. One of the cosponsors was Independent Sen. Angus King, the former governor of Maine. The lawmakers noted that with the exception of Medicare Part D, all large purchasers of prescription drugs negotiate better prices. Their bill, they say, would correct excessive payments to drug companies, while saving taxpayers and the federal government billions of dollars.
As you can imagine, the drug companies don't like what President Obama and the lawmakers are proposing. You can expect them to mount a multi-million dollar PR and lobbying campaign over the coming months to protect both their sweet deal with Medicare and their Wall Street-pleasing profits.
Wendell Potter (wendellpotter.com) is an author, public speaker and president of Wendell Potter Consulting. After a 25-year career in business, he left his job as head of communications for one of the nation's largest health insurers and became a vocal advocate for health care reform and a critic of insurance company abuses. Follow him on Twitter at @wendellpotter.
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