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Op-ed: Exorbitant drug prices are nothing short of evil

First Published      Last Updated Jan 09 2016 06:06 pm

Evil in medicine is often linked with the past practices of blood-letting, lobotomies and arsenic treatments. Now we can add to these atrocities another evil, that of killing people by preventing their needed, life-sustaining treatments.

There is an area of government that is currently under-utilized — protecting citizens from intentional predators. Not wild or rabid animals, zealous terrorists, gun nuts or Wall Street, but you're getting closer. It's one that lurks within our society, moving about undetected, like "the thing" in John Carpenter's movie of the same name. They just look "human" and are becoming an increasingly bad part of Big and Little Pharma that can't seem to see the patient for the money.



Recently, Turing Pharmaceuticals, led by CEO Martin Shkreli, purchased the manufacturing-use license for an anti-parasitic drug treating toxoplasmosis (often in AIDS victims) and previously costing $13.50, then raised its price to $750 a pill (an increase of 5,556 percent). This drug, Daraprim or pyrimethamine, generically off patent for practically forever, had been available for 70 years. But then greed set in.

A few years ago, one of my daughters was discovered to have Hepatitis C, likely obtained from a blood transfusion needed when she was a 26-week, two-pound premie in the NBICU just less than a year before the hepatitis C virus was found, then tested for, in blood banks. It cost her about $13,000 for 11 months of difficult treatments to be cured, thereby avoiding liver cirrhosis later in life, not to mention infecting others over time.

Recently a better type of treatment, taking much less time (about 3 months), became available from Gilead Sciences. This should have been good news. However, that cost is now $94,500 ­— or $1,125 a pill! — more than the current value of an ounce of gold.

Our government has certain rights and responsibilities to set controls on business practices that are not in keeping with the basic medical promise, that all of us in medicine and public safety take very seriously, "First, do no harm."

Letting people suffer, even die, because of unwarranted, continually soaring drug prices speaks to nothing more than greed and inhumanity. Such practices are simply astonishing. These companies claim that they must charge back for "lost opportunity costs" claiming what they "could have made if" surely needs to be recouped. But what determines that?

In working with 911 protocols, training, and other crucial elements aimed at aiding the correct delivery of public safety, if we and our dispatchers, paramedics, firefighters or police officers charged anywhere near these fees for their no less important services and care, we'd all be in federal prison.

Other drug companies like Vertex charge an astronomical $300,000 for a year of cystic fibrosis treatment, while Celgene charges a relatively "cheap" $150,000 for a cancer drug.

There should be a rule that you can't charge more than the patient earns a year. Now that's a reasonable twist on "lost opportunity costs" if there ever was any.

Recently more than 100 oncologists (cancer docs) stated that "sick Americans are being held to ransom" for cancer and other medications. They have strongly appealed to the government to create a new regulatory body to determine the reasonableness of drugs prices after they are approved.

Let's get our most tenured politician, who has a long history of influence in the pharmaceutical and health supplements industry, to lead the way with some common sense controls to this medical form of highway robbery. As was mentioned before, the term "astonishing" should be only be used for the results of a drug — not its cost.

Jeff Clawson, M.D., is an emergency physician and medical director of the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch in Salt Lake City.

 

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