Why Are Prescription Drugs So Expensive? Follow The Money In Politics

The Republican and Democratic parties are holding their conventions this month, but fewer and fewer Americans pay attention to what they do.

The United States has the lowest voter turnout of any major nation, and it is expected that this year's turnout will be the lowest in decades.

There are a number of reasons why a majority of Americans no longer believe in the political process, but one factor stands out. Most Americans perceive that both major parties are heavily dominated by big-money interests and that, regardless of who is elected, it is the wealthy and the large corporations who control the agenda.

An important debate is now occurring in Washington that will determine whether prescription drug prices in this country will be substantially lowered or whether the powerful pharmaceutical industry will continue to charge Americans the highest prices in the world for their medicine.

Sadly, I fear that the outcome of this debate will confirm the cynicism of the American people toward the current political process and show the inability of the leadership of the Republican and Democratic parties to stand up for the public against an enormously wealthy industry that provides huge amounts of campaign funding to both parties.

The good news is that overwhelming bipartisan majorities in the House and the Senate recently voted to add language to this year's agriculture bill that will allow US wholesalers and pharmacists to import prescription drugs from abroad at drastically lower prices provided the drugs meet rigid FDA safety standards, standards that the FDA itself has signed off.

The theory behind this initiative is simple and consistent with tripartisan legislation introduced in the House last year by Representatives Marion Berry, an Arkansas Democrat, Jo Ann Emerson, a Missouri Republican, and myself. The pharmaceutical manufacturers sell their products in many other countries for 30 to 50 percent less than in the United States.

By eliminating the federal law that gives these manufacturers a monopoly over prescription drug importation, competition will end the discriminatory prices, and the cost of prescription drugs will plummet in the United States at no expense to the taxpayer.

The bad news is that as this legislation moves to a conference committee, where differences between the House and Senate language will be worked out, the drug companies have launched an all out, multimillion-dollar lobbying and advertising campaign to protect their lucrative monopoly and to defeat this legislation. There has been a deafening silence on this issue from the Republican congressional leadership and the Democratic White House - both of which are recipients of large sums of pharmaceutical industry money. In other words, despite the strong desire of the American people to see lower prescription drug prices and the support of the vast majority of members of Congress for serious legislation to accomplish that goal, the pharmaceutical industry could well win because of the hold it has over the leadership of both parties. It is quite possible that the Republican leadership in Congress will not allow this legislation to come to the floor for a vote and equally possible that the White House will not demand that they do so.

People may wonder how, in a supposed democracy, a single industry can wield such incredible power. Let me tell you: At a time when millions of Americans are unable to afford the enormously high prices of prescription drugs, the drug companies constitute the most profitable industry in America - enjoying over $27 billion in profits last year. With those resources they can spend unlimited amounts to defeat efforts to lower the cost of prescription drugs.

In terms of campaign contributions, they spend more than any other industry. During this election cycle, the pharmaceutical industry has already contributed almost $9 million to both parties and to hundreds of members in the House and Senate.

The industry's lobbying efforts are unparalleled. Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer organization, estimates that the drug companies have close to 300 paid lobbyists on Capitol Hill - one for every two members of the US Congress. They spend more than any other industry in political advertising. As I write, they are spending millions on deceitful television, radio, and full-page newspaper ads all across the country to defeat the reimportation initiative. Last year they budgeted $65 million for political advertising to prevent Congress from passing meaningful prescription drug reform.

But even with all this money, they cannot win the fight in the open. They cannot justify what I have seen with my own eyes when I made two trips to Canada with my Vermont constituents in order to purchase prescription drugs.

Vermonters were able to save thousands of dollars on the medicine they needed by going over the border.

One of the starkest examples was Tamoxifen, a widely prescribed breast cancer drug, which sells for one-10th the price in Canada it sells for in the United States. But it is not just Canada. While Americans pay $1 for a prescription drug, that same drug is sold in the United Kingdom for 65 cents, France for 57 cents, and Italy for 51 cents, even though many of these drugs are manufactured right here in the United States.

Given the deep cynicism that already exists regarding the power of big money over the political process, it would be a tragedy for this country if the political leadership in Washington caved in to the pharmaceutical industry.

The American people are entitled to lower prices for their prescription drugs, but even more important, they deserve to know that the political leadership of our nation cannot be bought.

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