Talk about good times for Washington’s mercenary culture. Even as officials scrambled to explain why they had not acted more quickly to protect postal workers from anthrax contamination–or to deal with the public’s fears regarding the disease–they were showing solicitous concern for Bayer, the maker of the anthrax-fighting antibiotic Cipro.
Faced with the choice of protecting public health or protecting a corporation’s intellectual property, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson instinctively chose to stand by Bayer, whose Cipro patent doesn’t expire until late 2003. Never mind that it could take Bayer twenty months, working nonstop, to meet the government’s target of a sixty-day supply for 12 million people, while generic drug companies say they could jointly reach that goal in three months. Initially, Thompson said he had no authority to override Bayer’s patent, and it was only after public and Congressional criticism that he used his leverage to force Bayer to reduce its price for Cipro. Of course, if Thompson were to invoke federal law allowing the compulsory licensing of Bayer’s Cipro patent to meet the current emergency (paying the company a fair royalty), he would be hard-pressed to keep arguing against similar measures to address the AIDS epidemic in the developing world.
The highly profitable pharmaceutical industry has invested heavily–doubling its campaign contributions between 1996 and 2000 to more than $26 million–to insure that it gets a Congress and Administration friendly to its interests. And it has paid off. In July the House soundly defeated an amendment sponsored by Bernie Sanders that would have allowed US wholesalers and pharmacies to import FDA-approved US-made drugs sold overseas. Given the price differential, such a change could have saved Americans $30 billion or more a year. According to Public Campaign, members who voted to protect Big Pharma from competition received, on average, $9,000 in campaign contributions from that lobby in 1999-2000, compared with $2,800 to members who voted the other way.
Nor are the drug companies alone in enjoying a special level of concern in Washington. Emboldened by Congress’s hasty and over-generous bailout of the airlines, leaders of the insurance industry threatened to take the economy down with them if they too weren’t promised a multibillion-dollar rescue package. Hollywood wants a tax break to keep it from moving studios abroad. Restaurants and hotels want taxpayers to subsidize 100 percent of the cost of their customers’ three-martini lunches and golf junkets. Travel agents, car rental agencies and amusement parks want to give everybody a $500 tax credit to bolster their businesses. And every money-making corporation that ever got caught trying to avoid paying its fair share of taxes now hopes that this is the moment to kill off the alternative minimum tax. Meanwhile, the hundreds of thousands of workers who are out of a job since September 11, or barely hanging on, can’t get Congress to extend their unemployment benefits or to help them keep their healthcare.
The lesson for an anxious public wondering whether the government can protect them–from sickness, from joblessness, from being treated as second-class citizens–is that it’s time to throw the money-changers out of the temple. While battling terrorism abroad, we must also fight corporate greed here at home.