Exposing Big Pharma's Influence on Politicians

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Big Pharma wrote the Medicare prescription drug bill

CBS spoke with Congressmen Walter Jones, Dan Burton and others about the legislative session that voted the Medicare prescription drug bill into law. An excerpt:

“I’ve been in politics for 22 years and it was the ugliest night I have ever seen in 22 years,” says Jones of efforts by Republican Congressional leaders to persuade defecting Republicans to vote for one of the most expensive bills ever before the House. “The pharmaceutical lobbyists wrote the bill,” says Jones, who, with Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), was among those defectors.

“The votes were there to defeat the bill for two hours and 45 minutes and we had leaders going around trying to twist [defecting Republicans’] arms to get them to change their votes,” says Burton.

“It was horrible,” Jones tells [Steve] Kroft. “We had a good friend from Michigan, Nick Smith (formerly R-Mich.) and they threatened to work against his son who wanted to run for his seat when he retired,” recalls Jones. “I saw… a member of the House, a lady, crying when they came around her, trying to get her to change her vote.”

The bill passed, extending limited prescription drug coverage under Medicare to 41 million Americans. According to Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, a non-partisan healthcare watchdog group, it purposefully allows drug companies to charge more by preventing Medicare from negotiating prices. As a result, one government agency will pay more for drugs than another will. “The [Veterans Administration] does bargain and they do it successfully,” says Pollack. “Medicare could do the same thing, but Medicare is prohibited from doing that as a result of this new Medicare legislation.”

Several lawmakers who worked on the bill have since joined firms that lobby for the drug industry, including the man who steered the legislation through the House, former Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), who also chaired the House committee that regulated the pharmaceutical industry. Tauzin retired to become the president of Pharma, the drug industry’s top lobbying group — a $2 million-a-year post.

Says Burton, “When you’re pushing so hard for a bill that’s controversial and you have to keep the machine open for three hours to get the one vote necessary to pass it and then, within a matter of months, you go to work for the industry that’s going to benefit from it, it does cause you some concern.”

Now that’s an understatement.

It is great that “60 Minutes” is exposing Big Pharma’s influence over the laws that are made and enforced. As Jones put it, “the pharmaceutical lobbyists wrote the bill.” It is amazing that an industry can control the rules and regulations made to govern them.

How long will the American people put up with this?

Insight

The Truth About the Drug Companies: How They Deceive Us and What to Do About It. Many Americans have wondered why prescription drugs have become so expensive while advertising for those drugs seems to grow exponentially. Former New England Journal of Medicine Editor Marcia Angell has some answers. The pharmaceutical industry, according to Angell, is fraught with corruption and doing a disservice to customers, the federal government, and to the medical establishment itself. In The Truth About the Drug Companies, Angell explains how a huge portion of the revenue generated by "Big Pharma" goes not into research and development but into aggressive marketing campaigns to sell their product. She describes how, even though the drug companies claim that it costs them an average of 802 million dollars per drug to develop new medicines, that figure is obscenely inflated since it factors in marketing as well as expected interest the company would have received had they invested the money in the open market. Meanwhile, Angell says, most of the R & D work is done by colleges and universities funded by the government. There are also problems with the drugs themselves, Angell indicates, since a majority are "me-too drugs", slightly modified versions of existing products which meant to address concerns of consumers most likely to spend money on pharmaceuticals. Thus, the market is filled with remarkably similar drugs to treat depression and high cholesterol while potentially life-saving medicines for diseases afflicting third-world countries are discontinued because they aren't profitable. In the books most damning passage, Angell tells of the high-priced junkets offered to doctors, ostensibly offered as educational opportunities that seem to constitute little more than bribes. The prognosis for reform is a grim one, Angell indicates, due to the massive cash reserves and lobbying efforts of "Big Pharma." Indeed, that lobby was hard at work trying to discredit her claims immediately upon the book's publication. But for anyone who's paid a pharmacy bill, The Truth About the Drug Companies is a fascinating read.

In what should serve as the Fast Food Nation of the drug industry, Angell, former editor of the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, presents a searing indictment of "big pharma" as corrupt and corrupting: of Congress, through huge campaign contributions; of the FDA, which is funded in part by the very companies it oversees; and, perhaps most shocking, of members of the medical profession and its institutions. Angell delineates how the drug giants, such as Pfizer and AstraZeneca, pay physicians to prescribe their products with gifts, junkets and marketing programs disguised as "professional education." According to Angell, the cost of marketing, both to physicians and consumers, far outweighs expenditures on research and development, though drug makers invoke R&D as the reason drug prices are so high. In fact, says Angell, with combined 2002 profits of $35.9 billion for the Fortune 500's top 10 drug companies, the drug industry is America's most profitable by far, thanks to disproportionately high prices, generous tax breaks and manipulation of patents to extend exclusive marketing rights to blockbuster drugs like Prozac and Claritin. Angell mounts a powerful case (and offers specific suggestions) for reform of this essential industry—a case worth bearing in mind as "big pharma" continues to oppose importing cheaper drugs from Canada.

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