These are unique times we’re living in, so before I criticize this guy for his Big Pharma love, I feel compelled to hand him a well-earned compliment: Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) acted heroically in voting to impeach former President Trump in the wake of the violent January 6th assault on Congress. Whether or not you agree with Burr’s vote, history shows politicians rarely cross the aisle to impeach someone in their own party. Senator Burr’s vote was courageous. I stand by that even though he decided not to run for re-election in 2022.
People (like me) often accuse politicians of carrying water for Big Pharma so that they will receive large campaign contributions from the industry. During Sen. Burr’s last campaign in 2016, he received over $200,000 in campaign contributions from drug companies. These contributions contributed to him receiving an F grade on drug prices on the Prescription Justice Congressional Report Card. Even though he is not facing an election in 2022, Sen. Burr continues to espouse public policy beliefs and talking points of the multinational pharmaceutical industry. So maybe he is genuinely a believer in the pharmaceutical industry being able to charge anything it wants for life-saving medications because that’s the business model supposedly supporting wonderful advances in biomedical research. Maybe.
This week, I’m proud to announce that I teamed up with Stephen Salant, PhD, professor emeritus of economics at the University of Michigan, to write an op-ed called “The one-two punch to knock out high drug prices.” Professor Salant was also an economist with the Federal Reserve Board and the Rand Corporation. Our article, published today in The Hill, recommends legislation and regulatory reforms that would promote safe prescription drug importation and implement a most favored nation system of drug pricing for Medicare. The recommendations are based on executive orders from the Trump administration and Democratic legislation from the previous Congress. They should have intense bipartisan support.
Lots of others have written articles advocating similar reforms, but our article employs new economic theory articulated by Dr. Salant in a paper called Arbitrage Deterrence: A Theory of International Drug Pricing. You can read the op-ed and the paper (if you have strong math skills) but the gist is that: 1) Promoting drug importation, both personal and wholesale would lead to lower domestic but higher foreign drug prices, 2) Simultaneously implementing a strong system for international reference pricing would curtail the aforementioned drug price increases and create a noble cycle of lower and reasonable foreign and domestic prices, and 3) the savings to the U.S. government would be more than enough to subsidize biopharmaceutical research to offset lower R&D investments from drug companies.
Drug importation, by which I mean the process of buying much less expensive and equally safe prescription drugs from other countries, may see more sunlight under the Biden administration. For many drugs, the prices are frequently 90% less in other countries. Biden included drug importation among several policies he plans to pursue to lower drug prices. There’s momentum on drug importation from the Trump administration in the form of:
This week the prices of over 500 drugs went up in America, according to drug price transparency non-profit organization 46Brooklyn. This happens every year, usually coinciding with shouts of anger and disgust with the pharmaceutical industry’s greed. The shouts are muted this year, probably because, like it or not, we’re counting on Big Pharma to manufacture enough Covid-19 vaccines to end the pandemic. But the battle against high drug prices continues. Godspeed.
The median price increase reported was 4.6%, slightly lower than last year’s increase but about eight times the estimated inflation rate for 2020 of 0.62%. If you’re thinking I’m going to start talking about importing drugs from Canada now, you’re wrong – as helpful as that remains for Americans who go that route individually. [There’s an importation surprise at the end of this post for you, however.]
Forgetting about the potential dangers to competition from corporate Leviathan Amazon, that it launched a new online pharmacy this week will certainly appeal to tens of millions of Americans. Prescription drugs are yet another thing you can get when you go to Amazon.com. And if you’re an Amazon Prime member (aren’t we all?), then there are discounts and whip-fast delivery to be had. But, unlike in many other industries where Amazon can crush the competition on prices, its online pharmacy launch does not accomplish that. Brand name drugs, ones without and even with generic competition, are similarly priced to other American pharmacies. PharmacyChecker checked this out and has some good advice for consumers about Amazon’s pharmacy at Ask PharmacyChecker this week.
Overall, brand name drugs do not appear to be any cheaper using Amazon Pharmacy than what you can get using a discount card found on GoodRx or PharmacyChecker. How can they when the pharmaceutical industry has monopolistic pricing power over patented drugs? Amazon is subject to the same average wholesale acquisition costs as Walgreens. Not only do drug manufacturers have patents: they have special international trade protections where companies cannot import these same drugs from foreign wholesalers who charge much lower prices in Canada, not to mention the even lower prices in the UK and European Union countries – unless the drug manufacturers do the importing or authorize it.
A surrogate for the Trump campaign, Katy Talento, stated in an interview with Elisabeth Rosenthal, Editor-in-Chief, Kaiser Health News, that personal drug importation is allowed as a means for Americans to afford prescription drugs. I bring this up to make two points:
One, to remind the reader about the legal basis for the non-enforcement policy.
Two, to point out that during the Trump administration, the FDA has actually increased the numbers of prescription drug orders from other countries that it seizes, flouting the non-enforcement policy.
Ms. Talento’s remarks came in the form of an answer to a question that Ms. Rosenthal asked on behalf of Mike from Louisiana. Mike stated that he and his wife get their meds from Canada because they cost 50-75% less. Trump has been raging about drug prices for four years, but when are they going to see savings on their U.S. pharmacy shelves? Start at minute 42:00 in the video below.