In any given year in America, your ticker will give out before anything else does. Ergo, heart disease, year in, year out, generally makes funeral home owners richer than any other health effect. A close number two is perhaps the scariest word in the English language, cancer.
It can attack more than 60 organs in the body and rests at a firmly the entrenched runner-up spot in the conclusion of life department. That includes leukemia or “cancer of the blood.” Lung and respiratory problems are high on the death-list as well and with right-wing legislative indifference to our poisoned land, air and water, I’m sure will continue to make great strides in killing those who happen to be in the wrong place (America) at the wrong time (now, and as long as Republicans reign).
But it’s cancer that’s captured my attention today. Maybe because it’s somewhat personal in that a good friend of mine has been fighting leukemia for decades. Without spelling out the whys and wherefores of his two forms of leukemia, suffice to say that they can both kill you dead; one with great certitude, the other more insidiously. One form has been laying low for many years. He’s been treated actively for the other for the 13 years, with no signs of anything for the last 3 years. The treatment has been both successful and FREE! Up until just recently that is. It was free because my pal was chosen to be part of a clinical trial population. That trial has ended and the price will leap to around $7,500 monthly.
That’s where my story begins. Or more specifically, the story many of Politicus’ visitors can recount in agonizing detail in their own lives. My story is about the giant life and death rip-off that is the retail costs of cancer medications. Let’s start with the fact that the pharmaceuticals can afford to provide meds for clinical trials for nothing. They make enough money with their other products to conduct these mandatory trials, gratis. Then, if they work, they’ll make up trial costs thousands of times over.
It wasn’t always so. I’ll certainly concede that R & D can be an expensive process though I suspect a majority of pharmaceutical advances piggy-back meds technology that somebody else (NIH most likely) paid for many decades ago, and as I believe I’ve written before on these pages, new products are often little more than ‘tweaked’ for a relative song, then sold with outrageous price tags.
The nitty gritty of cancer meds is that when you’re dealing with dying, desperate people, you can hose them out of every last penny they’re worth. They’ll sell their house, car(s), hit up loved ones; anything to keep occupying this planet. Top management of big pharmas have long recognized how much cancer-ridden, John and Jane Doe are willing to ante up if they think they can buy another few precious months or maybe even years.
ABC News did a nice piece a few months ago that revealed that prices for cancer drugs have doubled in the last decade. They used to average $5,000 per month or around $60,000 a year. Combining numerous sources, the fact is that about 10% of the population makes that much money. Therefore, a still living subset of cancer sufferers can pay the snake oil people all of their earnings and live in a cardboard box under the bridge. No state comes closer than $45,000 a year per capita income.
So the $5,000 monthly average cancer med price has now doubled to $10,000 a month or $120,000 a year. That’s the average price. The highest average individual state HOUSEHOLD income would miss that mark by about 50 grand. Remember, we’re talking end-of-life here; watching the grandkids, tending the flowers, talking to friends, petting the dog; the supposedly mundane interlocking life’s events that give pleasure and a sense of being. For most people, even two to three extra months is worth a king’s ransom.
Every once in a while, Uncle Sam will come sniffing around a pharma lab, asking the same questions we’re all asking. And Uncle gets answers. Lies, but answers. The pharmaceuticals claim an average of one billion dollars to develop a drug and bring it to market. Honest experts in the field call that a fabrication in the neighborhood of roughly $910 million. I would suspect a lion’s share of the $90 million actually spent, goes to the kind of marketing you see on TV, morning, noon and night.
There is also the matter of chemists and biologists involved in the workup of the drug. Sometimes it can, indeed, take a decade to get a drug ready for sale. But bear in mind, for the biggies, the chemists and biologists are already on staff, much like lawyers on retainers. Plus development time varies widely. Nobody is begrudging the fact that drug companies deserve a little sugar for their efforts. Generics are only obligated to guarantee the ingredients, effects and dosages of the original. They can save money in the form of coloration and size of pills, packaging and assorted other steps that don’t involve the physiological impact of the drug. And there’s the fiscal factor of coming off a patent and opening the field to competitors.
On the other hand, you do know that Canada pays considerably less for the same drugs than we do, don’t you? That’s because the Canadian government regulates drug prices. And it’s not exactly a liberal government up North. Regulates! Yet, the giant drug companies still sell the Canadians all that they’ll buy. At a profit! The National Health Service in Britain is essentially free. Few drugs will cost more than $12 a prescription. For that ‘free’ service, British citizens pay a tax. It’s roughly 4.5% of their income, or 18% of their taxes. Insured American citizens pay an extra thousand a year just in shoring up charitable cases. British residents live longer, healthier lives while spending a fraction of the U.S. total for health care. About 10% of the health care system comes from private doctor and insurance sources.
Part of the extraordinarily high costs of U.S. cancer meds can be attributed to the fact that these are brand name drugs you’re paying for, not generics. That’s why it’s vital to keep our eye on the recent fast track trade agreements that are banging at the door of Congress. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, for example, wants to lengthen the period that pharmas can hold off generics.
It’s also comforting to know that TPP can form a blockade to deny certain generics to a sick population in life-saving need of affordable drugs. A little research will yield a big-pharma rush to buy or merge with certain foreign drug companies that can accomplish under TPP what U.S. companies cannot. Prices can be raised at will and the more expensive patents can be stretched out for years and years.
Expect an all-out assault on generics that critics insist could pull the rug out from under the U.S. health care safety nets of Medicaid and Medicare and will have grave consequences for the veteran’s population that Republicans purport to love.
Remember, the polls (where you vote) are mightier than the corporate sword of greed.