Politics & Policy

Drug-Company Demogoguery

The Straight Talk Express is back.

With Senator John McCain’s New Hampshire victory, he’s well on his way to securing the Republican nomination. McCain is a remarkable man, and he has the potential to be an outstanding president. However, he needs to reconsider his position on drug companies.

In the Republican debate last Saturday, McCain said that pharmaceutical firms — the makers of life-saving medicines — are the “bad guys.” This is at odds with his party’s position, and it’s just wrong. Drug makers aren’t to blame for America’s healthcare woes.

Romney, to his credit, stood up to this demagoguery. “Don’t make the pharmaceutical companies into the big bad guys,” he shot back.

But McCain stuck to his guns. “They are,” he insisted.

If McCain had made this remark in a Democratic primary debate, it would have been unremarkable. Blaming “corporate America” for the nation’s problems, especially when it comes to health care, is commonplace on the left.

Republicans, however, are far less inclined to point the finger at corporations. They tend to recognize that large businesses usually aren’t the root cause of our problems, and that their cooperation is often needed to solve them.

What’s more, they understand that drugs often extend and improve life. And that if this country is ever going to solve its healthcare crisis, it needs to encourage the technological innovation wrought by pharmaceutical manufactures in their push to produce cheaper and more effective drugs.

John McCain is the apparent exception. And his rhetoric suggests that he would, as president, treat drug companies in the same confrontational way that many Democrats have promised.

In fact, he’s already pledged to legalize foreign drug importation if elected.

Drug makers strongly oppose importation. So do most Republicans. Even Mike Huckabee, despite his populist leanings, realizes that imported drugs could harm American patients.

The FDA has repeatedly said it is unable to guarantee the safety of imported meds, a reality made all too clear by a 2004 study that found that the agency checks less than three percent of suspected illegal drug deliveries running through New York’s JFK International Airport.

And the World Health Organization estimates that around ten percent of the global drug supply is counterfeit.

But McCain has brushed these safety concerns aside.

It’s likely that McCain’s hatred of the pharmaceutical industry is rooted in the erroneous, yet widely held assumption that high prescription drug prices are a primary cause of the problems with the U.S. healthcare system.

But this isn’t the case. Only 11 cents of every dollar the U.S. spends on health care goes to prescription drugs. It’s a small slice of the fiscal pie. And in 2006, drug prices increased by only 1.1 percent, well under inflation.

Moreover, pharmaceutical drugs are widely used in preventative care regimes that avoid the need for costly medical procedures. The National Bureau of Economic Research recently estimated that Medicare saves over $2 for every additional dollar it spends on prescription meds.

So drugs aren’t the reason that health-care spending has skyrocketed over the last decade; pharmaceutical companies are not to blame. John McCain should stop treating them as if they are.

Peter Pitts is president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest and a former FDA Associate Commissioner.

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