Monday, April 12, 2004

Government's Role in Pharmaceuticals - Franchised Monopolies vs. Public Welfare

I just got back from a presentation by U.S. Rep. Lynn Woolsey (CA) and Rep. Bernie Sanders (VT). I was saddened to hear the amount of effort (in people resources and money) the pharmaceutical industry spends to influence congress and the administration. I was more deeply saddened by how congress and the administration seems to be influenced by the pharmaceutical industry. In particular, Rep. Sanders's description of the way that the 2003 Medicare law was passed in congress made me wonder. How could I have my head in the sand for so long? How far away has our democratic government gotten away from its purpose?

I am reminded, once again, that there are too many people who believe that the open-market competitive economy has everything under control! All we have to do is let it do its thing! There is something that sticks in my throat when I think about business people finding ways to make profits from captive customers who are sick and dying.

The pharmaceuticals industry is one such hard-to-swallow business model. Not only is every company given the incentive to make profits, but every astute business person is charged with finding ways to reduce competition by exploiting barriers to entry such as patents, legislation, and the high cost to enter the market. Few industries exhibit the characteristics of monopoly markets like the pharmaceuticals industry does. Drugs costing 5 to 10 times as much in the U.S. as in other parts of the world? Protections for the industry against the re-importation of drugs back to the U.S.? What happened to government's role in counter balancing the power wielded by monopolies? Who will represent and fight for the general welfare of the people? Unfortunately, it looks like the dollar is mightier than the vote, today.

In no way does this relieve the individual consumer from his responsibility to consider the public welfare, either. We are all good consumers, and that would yield a good global welfare result if only the consumer had a longer time perspective than his own life. If the options are "spend $100,000 on open heart surgery to prolong my life from age 65 to age 75" vs. "spend $100,000 to prolong the life of 10 children from age 0 to age 65", who among us would not choose to save oneself? Who would choose to save the children?

April 12, 2004

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