Sunday, November 01, 2009

Marcy Winograd on Big Pharma and Patent Medicine

Marcy Winograd has an excellent diary up at Daily Kos (please read/recommend if you're so inclined!) regarding the pharmaceutical industry's stranglehold on patents for "biologics" - cutting-edge, life-saving drugs. The new health care bill includes an amendment by Representatives Anna Eshoo and Joe Barton which will grant 12 years of patent protection for these biologics. Marcy writes:
While it’s clear, as Rep. Eshoo points out in her counter-blog, that the Eshoo amendment, limits for the first time patent protection for exorbitant cancer and HIV drugs, it’s also true that a minimum 12-year monopoly that allows Roche-Genentech to charge cancer patients with breast or brain tumors $185,000 per year for Avastin  or Abbot Labs to suddenly increase its prices five-fold for Norvir, a key ingredient in the AIDS-HIV cocktail, constitutes an excessive stranglehold on access to medicine desperately needed, not only here but worldwide where AIDS leaves a trail of tears throughout Africa.

CALPERS, California’s 1.4 million employee pension plan, and AARP, the senior insurance group, both opposed the 12-year protection as unsustainable.
Congressman Waxman (D-Santa Monica), Chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee wanted a five-year patent; President Obama supported a seven-year compromise exclusivity on biologics.

"Many members are looking for so-called game changers that would bring more competition and lower costs" in the health-care sector, said Mr. Waxman. "But if we do what the drug companies want and add on long periods of monopoly protection...we will not only lose that opportunity, but guarantee higher drug prices for the foreseeable future."

 Jane Hamsher notes that:

because of an "evergreening" clause that grants drug companies a continued monopoly if they make slight changes to the drug (like creating a once-a-day dose where the original product was three times per day), they will never become generics. Instead of the Waxman-Deal amendment that granted much more reasonable terms to biologic patent holders, Speaker Pelosi chose to include the Eshoo-Barton amendment. And we could all be paying for that choice for the rest of our lives.
 When you couple this with the fact that most insurance companies will not pay for name brands, only for generics, you see what a Catch-22 this is for the average patient, who is in desperate need of these drugs but cannot afford the cost of the name brand, which can be hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Marcy writes:

The real question on biologics, however, reflects deeper issues also mirrored in the single-payer debate.  Just as single-payer advocates object to for-profit insurance companies whose first responsibility is a fiduciary one, to make money for shareholders, health care activists who challenge Big Pharma question whether for-profit corporations, often reliant on partnership money from the taxpayer-supported National Institute of Health,  should be allowed to own the rights to life-saving medicine now out of reach to some 90-million Americans who are uninsured or under-insured, millions more whose insurance companies refuse to cover the costs, as well as much of the Third World living in poverty.  

Selling medicine is not like selling cars or dish washers.  If you can’t buy a car, you can take a bus.  If you can’t buy a dishwasher, you can pick up a rag.  If you can’t buy Norvir, you can suffer with night sweats until you waste away.

No one should own the right to someone else’s life.
I think it's really, really important to, as Marcy says, shine a spotlight on what's happening with Big Pharma, and especially the patent issue.

Yes, they spend money on research. But the building blocks that they use to develop their drugs have been mostly put into place via public funding - NIH and university research. They don't 'invent' drugs out of thin air, from scratch - they use existing research to work from.

I think Marcy is spot on on this issue. It's not a matter of holding up a bill because it's not perfect - it's a matter of raising awareness about how the pharmaceutical industries work, and which politicians are benefiting from their largesse. When insurance companies will not pay for a life-saving name-brand drug but only a generic, it is imperative to find a way to make these drugs available and affordable to those who need them to survive and cannot afford literally millions of dollars in drug costs. Unless these companies developed these drugs completely from scratch, using no one's research or money but their own - and they don't; they certainly benefit from taxpayer money, both past and present - I think that entails a certain obligation to these taxpayers.

That is why I believe that in matters of life and death - which is what health care is - that the purely 'for-profit' corporate model, which is solely responsible to its shareholders and not to the public, is not appropriate. As Marcy pointed out, it's not like selling cars or dishwashers. We need to realize that there is a difference between health care and dishwashers, and treat them differently in the public sphere, as do other industrialized nations.

Marcy Winograd is challenging Blue Dog corporate Democrat Jane Harman in the June 8, 2010 Democratic Party primary.  In 2006, when Winograd jumped into the race just three months before the primary, she mobilized almost 38% of the vote.
To donate to Marcy's progressive challenge, visit

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