Commentary: Quit Complaining About Drug Prices

Go ahead, be upset and complain about the price of prescription drugs. Punish the drug companies. But then where are you going to get the drugs?

Lots of people are very upset about the price of medicine. And who can blame them? They're sick, they may need medicine to live, and yet it costs so much.

And when people are upset, politicians are quick to join the attack on drug companies.

Sen. David Pryor, D-Ark., called them the "robber barons of the American health care system."

Politicians have made commercials demonizing the drug companies, and many rail against them on Capitol Hill.

Listening to these politicians makes me wonder: Do they ever stop to think about how we get these wonderful drugs?

Miracles Take Time and Money

They don't just suddenly appear. Drug companies hire thousands of researchers who try to invent good things. Most fail.

But the few successes are worth it. Do you remember what life was like before the polio vaccine? Millions lived in polio wards, or need iron lungs to try to breathe. Those who think drugs are expensive should compare them to the cost of treating diseases like polio.

And those hated drug companies keep making life better.

Ten years ago, when people like Bo Jackson got hip replacements, we thought it was a miracle, and it was. But the operation was painful. Four years later, there was a drug available that sometimes eliminated the need for an operation. The drug costs $700 a year, which may seem expensive. But the operation cost $50,000 and it's not as good!

And the drug companies keep bringing us new miracles. Lance Armstrong's cancer drug cost $15,000, but as he says in the commercials for Brystol-Meyers Squibb: "If I had had this illness 20 years ago, I wouldn't be alive right now. I wouldn't have lived six months."

But these successes are the exception. For every success, there are a thousand failures.

Like my older brother Tom's. He's a skilled medical researcher who's worked for Harvard Medical School, and recently, for a pharmaceutical company that accepted his idea for a drug that they hoped would help people with cystic fibrosis breathe more easily.

His work is a good example of the risks drug companies take, usually with little return. His discovery happened 20 years ago, and he has been working on the drug for six years — but he's yet to get the drug to market. He estimates that the drug company has spent more than $20 million testing the drug, and that it could cost another $20 million more.

That's the norm. And even if they succeed, it can cost the drug companies hundreds of millions of dollars to get the drug to market.

Profit Drives Success

Still, the politicians and protesters say the companies make excessive profits and waste them on extravagant marketing. They say America should do what other countries do: Have price controls.

"We're the only country that is paying these exorbitant prices," said Mark Milano, an AIDS activist who was at the center of a group of protesters disrupting a presidential campaign speech.

Asked which country has a good system, he pointed to New Zealand. But New Zealand is not know for inventing new drugs. When asked why most new drugs come from America, he said, "I don't think it has to do with the fact that we have no price controls."

But doesn't profit make people want to do more?

"That's what they say," he said. But, he asked, "Is it so much to ask that their prices on drugs would actually bear some relations to their research costs?"

While government researchers do some drug research, the drug companies do much more. The investing, most of the drug trials, the manufacturing, the fighting 12 to15 years just to get permission to sell the drug … all that's done by the drug companies. For example, the National Institutes of Health say that of 56 AIDS drugs on the market, only five were developed by the NIH.

And if there were price controls, the drug companies say they'd do it much less.

"In country after country, when price controls get imposed, the lights in the laboratories go out," said Alan Holmer, head of PhRMA Foundation, which represents drug companies.

When they introduced price controls in Canada in the late '60s, drug research there dropped by more than half. And now, representatives of the big European drug companies, such as AstraZeneca, Aventis and GlaxoSmithKline, say they're transferring more of their operations to America, partly because of the price controls in Europe.

Milano said, "We certainly don't want more new drugs if all the poor people around the world are going to have no access to them whatsoever."

Is that right? If some people can't get the drugs, then no one should?

The critics and the politicians want it both ways. But if they succeed in "protecting" us by lowering drug prices, they'll also protect us from many wonderful new drugs! Give me a break!