Tribune editorial: Utah goes to great lengths to find cheaper medicines

FILE - In this April 10, 2000, file photo, a marker embedded in the pavement marks the imaginary line between the United States and Mexico at the San Ysidro border checkpoint between San Diego, Calif., and Tijuana, Mexico. The rare conjunction of two major cities, Tijuana and San Diego, with Los Angeles to the north, make it one of the busiest border crossings on the planet. The U.S. National Guard faces a vastly different environment than it did on its last two deployments to the border with Mexico, with far fewer illegal crossings and more Central Americans than Mexicans coming. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)

What lengths is the health care plan for Utah public employees willing to go to to get more affordable medicines for its members?

About 766 miles.

That’s how far it is from Salt Lake City, Utah, United States, to Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico. From drugs that cost, for example, $6,700 for a month’s supply to the same medicine that costs only $2,200.

The folks who run Utah’s PEHP, the nonprofit health insurance plan for public employees, put a pencil to it and determined that the system, and all the workers who pay into it, would be way ahead if the people who need expensive medications for some serious and long-term conditions flew to San Diego, drove across the border and bought their drugs at a clinic that, PEHP has determined, is as safe and trustworthy as any medical facility in the U.S.

The plan ponies up for the plane ticket and ground transportation and provides each pharmacy tourist a $500 bonus to make the trip. Even with those costs, the savings stand to be substantial.

This is good news and bad news.

It’s good because it shows that someone in a position to do something about it has done the looking and done the math necessary to take advantage of these lower prices. Enough of this kind of comparison shopping and the prices charged by Big Pharma in the U.S. might — just might — come down in response.

It’s bad news because we all live in a nation that brags about the quality of its health care system but, except for some outliers such as PEHP, does little or nothing to make that system affordable to the ever-larger number of families who are being priced out.

The prices available in Mexico — and Canada and France and India, etc., etc. — would not be that different from the prices available in Manti — and Kanab and Fillmore and Escalante, and so on — if our elected leaders of both parties would stand up to the pharmaceutical giants.

Firm price controls of the kind taken for granted in other countries might not be necessary here if the big buyers — Medicare chief among them — would jawbone the prices down. And they assuredly would, if it weren’t for the fact that Congress has specifically forbidden it.

The drug makers, of course, are quick to whine that they couldn’t possibly survive on less revenue because of the high costs of inventing, developing and testing every new medicine that comes to market. Those costs are high, and many of the experiments the money goes for don’t pan out.

But the drug companies are also raking in obscene profits, sharply increasing the price of medicines invented decades ago, paying out tons to promote their wares, providing doctors with swanky meals and expensive junkets and making towering contributions to the campaign funds of members of Congress.

The Center for Responsive Politics rates Utah’s Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Republican, as the third biggest recipient of Big Pharma campaign cash in the Senate, bagging $238,000 in 2018. But the No. 1, 2 and 4 beneficiaries are Democrats.

Democrats and Republicans who continue to come to blows over the future of the Affordable Care Act could and should agree on some serious action to bring down the skyrocketing prices of drugs. Enough to make the need for Utah’s desperate reach for affordable medicine go away.