If politics got real…the debate over costly prescription drugs would turn to more fundamental solutions like breaking up the pharmaceutical industry’s patent monopolies, which generate soaring drug prices, and rewarding consumers for the billions of tax dollars spent to develop new medicines. As a business proposition, that sounds radical, but it would actually eliminate outrageous profit-skimming at taxpayers’ expense and liberate lifesaving medicines from inflated prices so millions of people worldwide could afford the health benefits.
At present, the government picks up the bill for nearly all basic research and development, mainly through the National Institutes of Health. Then private industry spends about $25 billion a year on more R&D–essentially taking NIH discoveries the rest of the way to market. The companies mostly do the clinical testing of new compounds for safety and effectiveness, then win regulatory approval for the new applications. This is one instance where a bigger role for government, by taking charge of the scandalous pricing system, could produce vast savings for the public–as much as $50 billion to $75 billion a year.
The National Institutes of Health and independent scientists working with NIH grants generally do the hard part and take the biggest risks, yet there is no system for sharing the drug companies’ subsequent profits with the public treasury or for setting moderate prices that don’t gouge consumers. Instead, the drug industry reaps revenues of $106 billion a year, claiming that it needs its extraordinary profit levels in order to invest heavily in research. The companies are granted exclusive patents on new products for seventeen years (or longer if drug-company lobbyists persuade Congress to extend them). Meanwhile, the manufacturers collect royalties (and less profit) on the very same drugs under licensing agreements with Europe, Canada and other advanced nations where the governments do impose price limits. Thus, Americans pay the inflated prices for new medicines their own tax dollars helped to discover–while foreign consumers get the break.
Years ago, although reform was mandated by law, NIH abandoned its efforts to work out a system for moderating US drug prices–mainly because the industry refused to cooperate and had the muscle in Congress to get away with it. Now that soaring prices have inflamed public opinion again, Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research proposes a more radical solution. NIH should be given control over all drug-research policy, Baker suggests, and Congress should put up public money to cover the industry’s spending (probably less than $25 billion because marketing costs get mixed into the research budgets as well as money spent to develop copycat drugs, which are medically unimportant). The exclusive patent system would be phased out, perhaps starting with cancer drugs and other desperately needed medicines whose prices are too high for poor nations to afford. For $25 billion or less in new public spending, brand-name drugs would largely disappear, but, Baker estimates, prescription costs for Americans would shrink by as much as 75 percent overall.
A less drastic solution, suggested by James Love of Ralph Nader’s Consumer Project on Technology, would limit use of exclusive patent rights and, if needed, compel drug-makers to grant royalty licenses to other US companies to make and sell the same medicines, thus fostering price competition. Competing companies would be required to contribute a minimum percentage of revenues to R&D to maintain research spending levels. The government could also require companies to help fund government or university research.
The prescription-drug debate of Election 2000 is a long way from either of these visions for reform, but events may lead the public to take them seriously. Drug prices are inflating enormously. If Congress fails to make it legal, the bootlegging of cheaper medicines from Canada and other countries where the prices are controlled is bound to escalate, and the present system might break down from its own lopsided design. As a matter of public values, the discovery of new health-enhancing medicines ought to be shared as widely–and inexpensively–as possible, especially since public money helped pave the way to these discoveries. Jonas Salk never sought to patent his polio vaccine. He thought his reward was knowing how greatly his work had advanced all of humanity.