Fix our system? Listen to Oxfam and Doctors Without Borders

The U.S. Is Standing in the Way of Cheaper Drugs for the Poor

By Jason Cone and Raymond C. Offenheiser
The New York Times, October 27, 2016

In the United States, companies have raised prices on many drugs over the past five years, mostly with little public notice or scandal. Pfizer alone raised the prices of more than 100 drugs in one year. Drug prices have seen double-digit inflation over the past three years, at a time of relatively low inflation in the rest of the economy. Recent research suggests that cancer patients may be delaying use of lifesaving drugs, while there are reports that prisoners are rationed access to hepatitis C treatments — all because of high prices.

But this problem is also international. In poorer countries across the world where our organizations work, millions of people are priced out of medicines that could save lives and relieve suffering. For example, a recent World Health Organization study found that in some 30 countries, hepatitis C medicines were unaffordable for much of the population.

Pharmaceutical companies simply charge whatever they want — or can. They have big budgets to counter image problems from bad press and congressional hearings. And while they claim that high prices are necessary to develop new drugs, it’s just not true. Public funding and subsidies pay for much of today’s pharmaceutical innovation.

Many world leaders recognize that high drug prices are a public-health crisis. Earlier this year, Ban Ki-moon, the secretary general of the United Nations, commissioned a panel of industry, government, academic and civil society experts, including Oxfam International’s executive director, to recommend ways to bring drug prices down to affordable levels and to improve research and development of new medicines in order to fulfill the human right to health.

The panel’s report, released last month, found that today’s system is failing. Pharmaceutical monopolies reap huge profits from high prices, while medicines are unaffordable for too many people. The report called for more transparency and competition in the drug industry and for preserving and implementing existing policies that help reduce prices.

Shamefully, the American government sought to obstruct and oppose the panel, even denying the premise that high drug prices undermine public health.

The Obama administration’s response to the report’s release called the panel’s work “deeply flawed” and accused it of recommending “divisive policies,” which it warned ominously “could have significant unintended negative consequences.” In other words, if we want new medicines and innovations, we must continue to support a system in which the pharmaceutical industry has unlimited power to set prices. Considering alternative pathways is apparently off limits.

These scare tactics not only contradict the United States’ stated global and domestic health priorities, they are also an offense to people unable to afford critical treatment. Worse yet, the American government actively exports this approach to other countries through trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which, if allowed to take effect, will lock in and extend global monopoly protections and high medicine prices for years to come.

Yet to really transform how drugs are developed, governments must lead the charge. There are hopeful signs this might happen. In September, world leaders agreed to address antibiotic resistance in part, by committing to develop new drugs through such new research and development models.

The United Nations panel recommendations, which the Obama administration has tried to attack and discredit, are precisely designed to open new paths to medical innovation that benefit us all. Access to existing and new medicines and treatments should not depend on how much money you have, where you were born or whom you know.

The United States government, especially the next president, must stop defending industry profits and work to reform how we pay for medical research to ensure that all patients’ needs are addressed. High prices of medicines are not inevitable; they are a choice the American government has made. Many lives and livelihoods hang in the balance until that choice changes.

Jason Cone is the executive director of Doctors Without Borders USA. Raymond C. Offenheiser is the president of Oxfam America.



By Don McCanne, M.D.

Those of us who have tried so hard for so long to fix our dysfunctional health care system will understand this article. Reform efforts being celebrated today have enhanced the business successes of the medical-industrial complex and especially the insurance and pharmaceutical industries, while patients face more barriers to care through restricted networks, greater cost sharing and exorbitant pricing.

What is missing here? Jason Cone of Doctors Without Borders USA and Raymond Offenheiser of Oxfam America make it quite clear that it is our government that is failing the people while taking care of the industrial special interests.

Perhaps worse, we have a polarized nation with one side opposed to all things government in health care, and the other side celebrating the government’s gifts to the industry even though the welfare of patients is sacrificed in order to accomplish those ends.

In a democracy we are supposed to be able to fix these problems through our elections. But on my ballot for next Tuesday I don’t see any options that could realistically assure us support for the altruistic goals of Oxfam and Doctors Without Borders. It’s not like in two years of campaigning there wasn’t adequate opportunity to advance ideas that would truly make us stronger together as we make America great again. All we got instead was campaign slogans and further polarization on a scale with negative polarity at either end.