America’s deference to Big Pharma makes us the world leader of greed | Opinion | Salt Lake City Weekly

America’s deference to Big Pharma makes us the world leader of greed 

Taking a Gander

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Every time I fill up my car, or hear another story about how the drug companies are gouging Americans, I wonder, “How did we get here?” American business has, obviously, figured out how to rake in profits at everyone else’s expense. We have become the world leader for out-of-control greed.

During WWII, necessity as the “mother of invention” had spurred wartime American manufacturing and technology, particularly the ushering in of the nuclear age and the sophistication of weapons of war—along with the defenses necessary for a safer world. There were leaps-and-bounds advances in medicine, electronics, communication and transportation, and we became the look-to, go-to for most of the world.

The U.S. has continued to be, at least, the illusion of what real prosperity means, and much of the world’s poorer population dreams of what it’s like to be an American—singing our music, watching our movies, driving our cars, buying in to the emerging social networks and dreaming of a different world than theirs.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s still no question that Americans live better than most of the world. But, as a people, we have also assumed a collective smugness based on the power of our military, technology, medicine, culture and what we have considered a superior democratic model.

To be sure, Americans have some right to be proud. But we’re also entitled to our share of the shame. Somewhere, along the way, America lost its heart and soul, becoming the author of the unmitigated greed that is destroying our world today.

The cherished opportunities of “free enterprise,” the icing-on-the-cake of a democracy, have turned into a pattern of excesses that now endanger the future of our nation. Sadly, greed is an inherent quality of mankind and American business, it seems, cannot ever be satiated. Oh, we’re a world leader, all right; we’ve inspired much of the rest of the world to take on the money-is-everything mantra we’ve been singing so long.

But America’s insatiable greed understands that the suffering of others feeds the pockets of the insanely wealthy. And our elected officials, too, have become the dedicated servants of those whose greed is screwing mankind. Simply stated: Where there’s suffering, there’s going to be staggering profit.

Perhaps third only to the military and energy industries, the pharmaceutical sector continues to thrive on the pain of the sick, creating drugs that may or may not be as good as the generics they replaced, but which sell for many times the price. It’s gross immorality. Would you knowingly pay 100 times the price for a 1930s aspirin that had simply been relabeled with a fancier name?

In 2003, the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement and Modernization Act of 2003 was passed, preventing Medicare from negotiating with big pharma on the price of drugs. If I didn’t know this for a fact, I’d be saying, “Duh!”

How could the government have bought off on that? The only answer is the unholy partnership between our elected officials and the drug manufacturers, who maintain a well-defined system of “I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine.” It’s the same for every industry that supplies necessities. Our legislative bodies are rife with what can only be described as traitors—who, in the interest of continuing power and money, profess to be real Americans while allowing big business to continue its ongoing abuse of the poor and middle class.

Drugs—like health care, fuel, food and other non-electives—should be available to all at reasonable prices. The insulin crisis showed how corporate greed could exceed all decency. After a period of astronomical insulin prices, Eli Lilly and a handful of suppliers were forced to reduce their profits, limiting co-pays to $35 per month—down from around $400. The result: Diabetics no longer needed to make the choice between unaffordable medications and an affordable death. (And insulin suppliers remained profitable.)

Sir Frederick Banting, the Canadian Nobel Prize winner who first isolated insulin and initiated its first studies in managing the horrors of diabetes, gave away his patent to the University of Toronto and refused to make money on something that was so essential for hundreds of millions of sufferers across the globe. He understood that without insulin, those affected would have horrible lives and die young. Yes, he had a moral compass.

Now there’s a new push to get drug companies to moderate their pricing—specifically, the right of Medicare, the largest payer, to negotiate better prices from the drug companies on some of the most expensive medications. That doesn’t go far enough.

If we are to rein in Big Pharma and stop the bleeding, the U.S. must do what other countries have done: Tell the drug companies that, if they won’t sell their drugs for the best price in the Americas and Europe, Medicare simply won’t pay anything more. In addition, the laws preventing Americans from buying American drugs from other countries should be lifted, thereby putting pressure on the drug companies to stop the 300%-or-more gouging that is typical of the difference in prices charged to other world healthcare systems.

It’s not enough to negotiate. It’s time for America to “grow a set,” and that means being the one to call the shots. We cannot allow big business to be the one dictating the terms. And, getting price reductions—as the government has promised—shouldn’t require a wait until 2026 to become effective.

Tell your congressperson that it’s time to reel in big business’s abuse of the American people. Enforce antitrust laws; end the free-for-all business contributions to campaign financing; demand that legislators take their oath seriously; refuse to be a victim of America’s corporate greed.

The author is a retired novelist, columnist and former Vietnam-era Army assistant public information officer. He resides in Riverton with his wife, Carol, and the beloved ashes of their mongrel dog.

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