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Follow Canada's example

USA Today, Editorial/Opinion
5/5/04
Follow Canada's example
By Quentin Young

Forget about importing Canadian drugs. We need to import Canadian drug prices.

How does Canada and most other developed nations get 40% to 80% discounts on brand-name drug prices? The same way the Department of Veterans Affairs does: It uses its purchasing power to negotiate lower prices. This is a healthy use of market forces to secure the best deal.

Each of these nations has universal health coverage. In contrast, Americans are saddled with a screwy for-profit insurance system and suffer the world's highest out-of-pocket health costs, and drug purchases top the list.

High drug prices have serious consequences for the sick. Prescriptions go unfilled. Patients cut pills in half to make them "last longer." The undertreatment of diabetes and hypertension leads to amputations, strokes, heart failure and other devastating complications. The hundreds of dollars a month needed to treat chronic conditions are big factors in personal bankruptcy.

In addition to harming many patients, high drug costs batter businesses, which bear much of the cost of workers' medications. There is increasing disgust by business leaders with drug firms' exorbitant profits, which are four-fold higher than those of every other sector of the economy. Overpriced drugs raise costs for U.S. industry, compromising our international competitiveness.

The drug industry is dominated by a handful of giant global corporations that spend more on marketing than research and, year after year, make at least as much in profits. The claim that they need high prices to cover high research costs is bogus. The government has guaranteed their profits by extending their 20-year patents and protecting them from real competition.

Medicare negotiates prices with physicians, hospitals, laboratories and other health care providers. The drug companies, however, are exempted from this process in the new Medicare drug bill, ensuring that drug prices will continue to skyrocket.

The U.S. health system is in disarray. The economic mess, epitomized by the drug-cost crisis, makes a convincing case for a single-payer national health insurance system. Such reform would make prescribed drugs an ensured benefit and drive down expenditures by allowing the government to bargain for the best prices and highest quality.

Quentin Young, M.D., is national coordinator of Physicians for a National Health Program (www.pnhp.org).

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