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Laboratories of Democracy Stir Up Best Responses to Drug-Company Profiteering

Mylan's EpiPen profiteering has been so obscene that major media outlets that usually miss stories of corporate misdeeds have focused attention on the atrocious approach of the company's CEO, Heather Bresch. (Photo: AP)

Mylan Pharmaceuticals CEO Heather Bresch is the Ryan Lochte of drug company bosses.

Mylan's EpiPen profiteering has been so obscene that major media outlets that usually miss stories of corporate misdeeds have focused attention on her atrocious approach.

"From 2007, when Mylan took on the autoinjector, the company built it from an apparently weakening enterprise into a pile of money that reportedly represents about 40 percent of its operating profits," notes Forbes. "But that 400 percent increase in wholesale price for EpiPen looks meager compared to the whopping 671 percent salary increase company CEO Heather Bresch is reported to have enjoyed in that same time period."

That's bad enough.

But Bresch's attempts to defend herself have made things worse.

As the daughter of a politician — her father is West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin — she knew enough to mumble platitudes about her concerns and frustrations with skyrocketing drug prices. But her main response was to declare: “I am running a business. I am a for-profit business. I am not hiding from that.”

Actually, despite what she says, Bresch would appear to be a human being — not a corporation. Corporations aren't people.

However, to the extent that Bresch is the embodiment of the modern pharmaceutical industry, she sums up the corporate mentality. As she suggests, she is all about business decisions and profits.

And that's the problem.

Bresch is not the exception to the rule. She is the rule.

The only thing that distinguishes her is that she is in the spotlight — and that her attempts to cover for her wrongdoing (with miserable excuses and embarrassing attempts to divert attention by launching new “copay assistance programs” and introducing a generic version of the drug so that it can profit in different ways from what is essentially the same product) have been so transparently self-serving.

The real problem is not Bresch or Mylan. It is the mess that pharmaceutical companies have made — and continue to make — of health care in America.

Health care is a right, not a privilege. And when pharmaceutical companies engage in profiteering, they create an untenable circumstance for people who need lifesaving care, procedures and devices.

Of course, the pharmaceutical CEOs (and their political stooges) have their talking points in order. They know to "explain" that the research is expensive (even when it is massively assisted with funding from federal agencies) and to use soothing platitudes like Bresch's line: "Patients deserve increased price transparency and affordable care, particularly as the system shifts significant costs to them. However, price is only one part of the problem ..."


"Price," when it is jacked up by pharmaceutical corporations, is a pretty big part of the problem.

The way to respond to the problem is not to hope that CEOs share our concerns and frustrations, or to imagine that multinational corporations will even go all in for "price transparency."

The way to respond is to hold the pharmaceutical giants to account.

How? Until the federal government steps up, answers will come from the states. While Wisconsin — under the failed leadership of Scott Walker — may not serve as the “laboratory of democracy” it once was, other states are filling the role this fall with legislative action and ballot initiatives.

Consider California’s Proposition 61, the Drug Price Standards Initiative.

On the ballot in the nation's largest state, Proposition 61: "Prohibits state agencies from buying any prescription drug from a drug manufacturer at any price over the lowest price paid for the same drug by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, except as may be required by federal law." It also "applies to any program where the state agency is the ultimate payer for a prescription drug, even if the state agency does not itself buy the drug."

California's Yes on Prop 61/Californians for Lower Drug Prices campaign argues: "Prop 61 would utilize California’s bulk-purchasing power to secure lower drug prices for prescription drugs, saving taxpayers and consumers billions of dollars. And it will be an important blow against the monopoly pricing power and profit-driven arrogance of the pharmaceutical industry."

That's not the cure for everything that ails our broken health-care system. (Colorado will address the broader issue with Amendment 69, a proposal to create a state-based single-payer system to provide affordable health care for all.) But the California initiative is a vital tool — and it sends a vital signal to pharmaceutical company CEOs like Bresch.

"(With) the latest revelation of outrageous drug price-gouging — this time for EpiPens, which can save the lives of children with extreme allergies," said Garry South, the lead strategist for Yes on Prop 61, "the people of California are more than ever ready to fight back.”

Needless to say, the pharmaceutical corporations are resisting. The Los Angeles Times reports: "Of roughly $250 million raised for and against 17 ballot measures coming before California voters in November, more than a quarter of that amount — about $70 million — has been contributed by deep-pocketed drug companies to defeat the state’s Drug Price Relief Act."

But the Yes on Prop 61/Californians for Lower Drug Prices campaign has drawn strong support from AARP California, the California Nurses Association, the Urban League, AIDS Healthcare Foundation, Progressive Democrats of America, Social Security Works, the California Council of Churches IMPACT, former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, civil rights and labor activist Dolores Huerta, and now Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and the group Our Revolution.

Said Sanders: “The pharmaceutical industry charges the American people, by far, the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs and millions of people are unable to afford the medicine they need. Meanwhile, the top five major drug companies last year made almost $50 billion in profits. Enough is enough."

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