By Margaret Stock
Most Americans want Medicare to negotiate for lower drug prices, but Congress is not concerned about their opinions. Instead, Congress answers to corporate special interests — in this case, the pharmaceutical industry. To distract voters, Congress holds show hearings to lambast drug company executives publicly before TV cameras — but then Congress takes no action. Consider the public spectacle involving Heather Breasch (who raised the price of EipPens 500 percent) and Martin Shkreil (who raised the price of Daraprim 5,000 percent). Congressional hearings without followup action make for excellent political theater but do nothing to reduce the astronomical costs Americans pay for health care.
According to a recent study by Carleton University and Public Citizen, brand-name drugs cost the Medicare prescription drug program (Medicare Part D) approximately double the cost for the same brand-name drugs in the 31 OECD (Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development) countries. While Medicaid and the VA are permitted to negotiate drug prices, Medicare — the much larger program — is barred from doing so. Medicare Part D pays on average 73 percent more than Medicaid and 80 percent more than the VA for the same brand-name drugs.
Other countries adopt policies that constrain runaway drug prices to benefit their citizens, but the U.S. does not. As a result, all Americans fund Big Pharma profits. Canada spends just over 70 cents for every dollar spent on prescription drugs per person in the U.S.; the United Kingdom spends under 40 cents; and Denmark spends 35 cents. If the U.S. paid as little for drugs as Canada, Medicare would save $230 billion over the next decade. In addition, state governments would save $31 billion, and our citizens would save $48 billion through lower premiums. Those considerable savings would double if the U.S. prices were as low as the prices paid by Denmark. Medicare Part D covers 39 million people and amounts to 7 percent of the world’s prescription drug market. It certainly has the market power — if exercised — to negotiate drastically reduced drug prices.
Unfortunately, Congress answers to lobbyists and money rather than ordinary citizens, and the pharmaceutical industry is consistently one of the top contributors to our Senators and Representatives. The Center for Responsive Politics states that the pharmaceutical and health products industry “is consistently near the top when it comes to federal campaign contributions.” In 2009, Pro Publica described how former members of Congress and former government executives lobby and contribute to current members of Congress, blocking any action that threatens corporate profits, including authorization for Medicare to negotiate drug prices:
“To advance the pharmaceutical industry’s agenda, lobbyists meet with their former colleagues, attend hearings — and also funnel campaign donations.”
“Just over a week after moderate Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski voted against a version of health care reform being considered by the Senate health committee, [pharma lobbyist Raissa] Downs, co-hosted a $1,000-a-person fundraising breakfast for Murkowski at Charlie Palmer Steak [restaurant] … where Washington’s elite can choose from a breakfast menu that includes quail eggs and fig risotto …”
Congress will not adopt common sense solutions to the high cost of health care until we elect legislators who are answerable to the people instead of corporate lobbyists. In just the last election cycle, Murkowski received only $58,423 in small individual contributions while receiving $2.3 million in PAC money. To move this country forward, we must elect individuals who will put the interests of our fellow citizens ahead of wealthy corporate interests. To do that we must elect Senators who will not accept corporate PAC money. I have made a pledge not to accept corporate PAC money. I call on Murkowski to make the same pledge.
• Margaret Stock is a retired Army Reserve officer who has taught constitutional and national security law and political science at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and UAA. A graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School, the Harvard Law School and the U.S. Army War College, she is running as an Independent in the November election for the U.S. Senate in Alaska. She has pledged not to accept corporate PAC money.