Drug industry’s pot of gold

As a former legislator, it gives me no joy when I encourage my university students to “follow the money” if they want to understand health care policy-making. I wish it weren’t true, but our current system of forcing candidates to fund their campaigns by courting corporate contributions has so corrupted politics, it takes no particular genius to trace the money to the public policy, especially when it comes to health care.

One of the best examples comes from the influence exerted by the pharmaceutical industry group, Pharma, and their associated lobbying corps which has been so successful in getting policy-makers to do its bidding that Americans now pay 50 percent more for their prescription drugs than the rest of the world.

Our nation finds itself in the midst of an opioid crisis that is killing thousands of our family members every year while draining our emergency response and medical resources. Drug companies act like this problem emerged from nowhere but only New Zealand and the United States allow advertising for prescription drugs, driving a huge demand for their product in our society that believes a pill holds the answer to whatever malady we might have. And don’t get me started on the conflicts the industry generates by paying doctors to be their “experts” and flying them to exotic locales to “lecture” their colleagues on the next best drug.

Recently, the pharmaceutical industry has let greed overcome its political sensibility and privileged position at the top of the lobbying heap as companies gobble up each other, sometimes raising the cost of a needed drug to exorbitant, almost extortionist amounts. For example, the cost of a 40-year-old cancer drug, lomustine, recently rose 1,400 per cent, thanks to new ownership. People who previously paid about $50 for each pill must now pay $768. It’s no wonder why our health care costs continue to soar while other countries regulate drug pricing and pay much less.

A recent story in the Nevada Independent documented contributions from pharmaceutical companies to legislators last year after Democratic Senator Yvanna Cancela’s bill was passed to increase transparency in the pricing of critical diabetes drugs. Big Pharma was so incensed by Cancela’s legislation, it shifted 99 percent of its campaign funding to people more likely to do its bidding—Republicans and their affiliated political action committees. One of the PACs used the windfall to support the bogus recalls of three state senators whose votes they didn’t like, sending a clear message to elected officials.

Only one percent of the $1.4 million haul went to Democrats, a bad bet in the influence wars since Democrats are widely expected to hold both houses of the legislature next year and a Democrat could easily be governor as well. But maybe that bodes well for the public if Democrats become less beholden to Pharma and more interested in serving the needs of the people they represent.

Of course, legislators will tell you campaign donations buy nothing but the same open door every constituent can enter.

And industry lobbyists will say access is all they want, a few minutes to make their case and ensure a fair hearing of the facts. But in the rare times when a majority of legislators buck the industry, as they did when they approved Cancela’s bill, the industry viciously strikes back, reminding everyone of the peril of opposing it. Such may not be a quid pro quo bribe, but the corrupting influence of corporate-funded campaigns is not far from it.

Filing for legislative office begins next month and we need to be quizzing candidates about this issue and asking them why we can’t implement a system similar to Maine’s Clean Elections Act. It’s not impossible, but it’s going to take political will generated and enforced by voters.