The ACA’s implementation will see few of the prescription drug reforms Barack Obama once promised.
With the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, the price of prescription drugs, including generic ones, may not be as affordable as some Americans had anticipated or hoped.
Though originally touted as a piece of legislation that would grant U.S. consumers access to safe and affordable drugs, heavy lobbying by Big Pharma — specifically the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) — has prompted Congress to strip almost any language from the historic health care bill that would reduce the high price of prescription drugs for Americans.
According to reports, pharmaceuticals drugs in the U.S. currently cost about double what they do in other nations, including those comprising the European Union. Lower prices for prescription drugs, including name-brand drugs, are available for purchase via international pharmacy websites based in places such as Canada and the United Kingdom.
However, the Food and Drug Administration has warned Americans not to use these sites, saying that only U.S. online pharmacies, which are subject to regulation, should be used since other pharmacies often mislabel the drugs they sell.
While the price of prescription drugs in the U.S. is not expected to increase with the implementation of Obamacare, a lack of reductions in prices is concerning for some after a recent report from the Commonwealth Fund found that the high price of prescription drugs is the number one reason why some 50 million Americans did not take their medications last year — up from 48 million in 2010.
This means that about 28 percent of adults with chronic health problems such as hypertension or high blood pressure, diabetes, asthma, emphysema, lung disease, or heart disease, have reported not filling prescriptions or skipping doses of prescription drugs for their health conditions because of the cost.
Among those in the U.S. with chronic health problems who reported they had skipped doses or had opted not to fill a prescription, 52 percent were insured but with a gap in the past year. One-third of adults who were underinsured had skipped a dose or not filled a prescription for their condition, compared with 14 percent of adults with chronic health problems and adequate insurance.
Though a person’s failure to take their prescriptions daily doesn’t sound like it has any impact on the rest of the nation, it does. According to a Federal Register notice from the FDA, “The annual price tag for medication adherence failure is estimated to be $290 billion and the impact on the medical system and patients from this lack of adherence may result in relapses or recurrences of medical symptoms, increases in hospital visits, or even death.”
In an op-ed, Gabriel Levitt, of PharmacyChecker.com, a consumer website that evaluates the credentials of online pharmacies and provides drug price comparisons, wrote
“Call me cynical but I believe that congressional and federal silence about drug prices and their health effects is due to the government relations prowess of the pharmaceutical and U.S. pharmacy industries (think Pfizer and Walgreens), with the Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers of America … playing a starring role.
“They have spent billions lobbying against government price negotiations with drugmakers and drug importation reform, as well as other measures (see this) that would reduce suffering and death from what medical professionals call prescription non-adherence: patients not taking medication as prescribed.”
He said that “without significant legislative and regulatory actions to lower drug prices, tens of millions of Americans will continue to go without prescribed medication,” adding that the only way to fix the problem is to address the issue: high drug prices in America.
The power of Big Pharma
While the fact that Obamacare is financially beneficial to the pharmaceutical industry is not a new concept, the extent to which Big Pharma reaps from the legislation was not discovered until recently.
In 2011, the New York Times reported that President Obama’s re-election campaign was heavily financed by big names in the drug industry. For example Sally Susman, an executive at Pfizer, raised more than $500,000 for the Obama re-election campaign and organized a $35,800-per-ticket dinner for Obama.
Before Obama may have been financially influenced to support legislation favoring Big Pharma, he voted to legalize the import of prescription drugs from Canada and made that part of his presidential campaign platform in 2008. Though Obama and other supporters of the health care legislation touted the bill as a way to lower prescription drug costs for American families, a report from FreedomWorks says language that would have allowed for the import of drugs and increase the use of generic drugs was removed from the health care bill proposed by Democrats.
Though Big Pharma has agreed to reduce the price of some drugs and help close some holes in Medicare coverage, the industry likely agreed to do so knowing that with the implementation of Obamacare it would be earning profits from the estimated 32 million Americans that subsequently would have health care coverage.
But it’s not just Obama that has likely been financially influenced in recent years to pass legislation that’s kind to Big Pharma. A 2010 report from RxRights.org found that in the first three months of 2010, Big Pharma had donated $5 million to lawmakers — 56 percent of whom were Democrats.
However, now some groups such as Doctors Without Borders are saying that due to pressure from Big Pharma, Obama has not only abandoned part of his campaign platform, but is actively working to block pharmaceutical industries in other nations such as India from producing affordable and competitive drugs that would be available in the U.S.
According to a press release from Doctors Without Borders (MSF), India’s pharmaceutical industry is responsible for bringing down the price of medicines for illnesses such as HIV, tuberculosis (TB) and cancer by more than 90 percent.
Earlier this year, Novartis lost a seven-year-battle against an Indian generic drug manufacturer who made a generic version of a cancer drug, when the Indian Supreme Court ruled that drug patents can not be extended on existing drugs in order to lengthen a company’s monopoly on a drug.
“Every country has the right to take steps to increase access to medicines and implement a patent system in line with its public health needs,” said Leena Menghaney, manager of MSF’s Access Campaign in India. “Even though India is acting completely within its rights, the country must now deal with unrelenting, unwarranted, and deliberately misleading attacks from the multinational pharmaceutical industry and U.S. government officials.”
She added, “In a world where medicines are increasingly being patented, which blocks the production of more affordable generic versions, we’re going to see more and more people become sick or die because the medicines they need to stay alive are simply too expensive.”
Neither here nor there
Unfortunately for Americans, Obama has not only worked to keep drug prices at a level that pleases Big Pharma abroad, but here in the U.S. as well, despite several attempts by lawmakers to reduce the price of prescription drugs.
In 2009, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) proposed a piece of legislation that would have allowed Americans to safely buy drugs from international pharmacies. According to the Congressional Budget Office, Dorgan’s plan would have saved the federal government about $10.4 billion throughout the next 10 years, since the legislation included measures to protect U.S. consumers against drug counterfeiting and other practices that are dangerous for consumers.
Dorgan’s proposal passed the Senate with a 51 to 48 vote, but was not adopted since it failed to acquire a 60-vote supermajority. According to news reports, the White House worked hard to “crush” the amendment.
The FDA penned a letter to Sen. Dorgan explaining that his proposed amendment would be “difficult to implement” and involve “significant safety concerns.” FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said the Obama administration supports a program allowing Americans to buy drugs from other nations, but said the U.S. first had to study the safety aspect to see how well such a program would work.