One of the most inexplicable and frustrating subjects in the United States today is the cost of health care. The American people spend a huge amount of money on health care every year and do not get the same results as many other countries who spend less. One of the main areas of contention has to do with prescription medications. The United States pays more for prescription drugs than almost any other country in the world. This is despite the fact that the drugs are usually patented and name brands meaning they are exactly the same no matter where they appear. There are many reasons for this that some people might not fully grasp.
The United States has managed to enact a number of regulations and bills through various means that actually prevent people from getting prescription medications for less. One notorious example is that the people running the Medicare system are forbidden by law from attempting to negotiate prescription drug prices to find the lowest bidder. The Unit
ed States does not import cheaper medications from other countries even though they cost for less, are made by the same companies and are identical to what is found in America. Prescription medications cannot even be imported from just over the Canadian border.
That type of frustrating network of restrictions has gotten Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders very upset. The senator from Vermont was recently at a committee hearing. He was questioning the newly promoted Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, Doctor Robert Califf. Sanders has always been passionate about this issue and even tried to enact workarounds for his home state of Vermont since it borders the Canadian province of Quebec. Sanders tore directly into the commissioner with tough questions. Sanders addressed the commissioner reciting the fact that “the pharmaceutical industry spent $250 million on lobbying and campaign contributions, and employ some 1,400 lobbyists.” He then asked the commissioner whether “that type of expenditure has any impact on the fact that we pay by far the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs?”
The commissioner was lost for words. The answers that he gave were woefully inadequate considering the directness and details that Sanders had provided in the question. The main excuses seemed to be that the commissioner did not have expertise in those areas, did not think the information was correct or believed that everything was justified. He specifically pointed out that the money was really for research and development justifying the high prices of prescription drugs in America.
The reality is that the pharmaceutical industry in the United States is incredibly powerful. It has the same power as the gun, petroleum and defense industries. The industry heavily lobbies both Democrats and Republicans almost constantly. The industry lobbies state and local governments as well as medical organizations. This heavy influence has managed to lead to strong legislation protecting profits and earning pharmaceutical companies large government subsidies. This is the same as how petroleum companies receive massive tax breaks and subsidies or how the gun industry managed to basically outlaw some research on gun violence.
It is important to recognize that Dr. Califf is actually an industry insider. He started his career by convincing pharmaceutical companies to invest heavily in his department at Duke University. He went on to do extensive consulting work with a number of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world. He even held high positions there. His appointment as commissioner of the FDA is part of a pattern in Washington D.C. where industry lobbyists are frequently put in charge of the regulatory agencies tasked with monitoring those same industries. There is no sign that Sanders’ questioning will have any impact on the pharmaceuticals problems in America right now.