Medicine costs have been big news in recent months, sparked in part by breathtaking price increases by “Pharma Bro” Martin Shkreli, whose company raised the price of a critical HIV/AIDS drug 5,000 percent overnight, and the EpiPen manufacturer Mylan, which raised the price of the lifesaving anti-allergy medicine nearly 500 percent over the course of a decade.
Net week, the fast-growing movement against skyrocketing prescription drug prices is coming to Indianapolis in the form of a premiere screening of a new documentary film. Big Pharma: Market Failure will be shown on June 28 at 6:30 p.m. at the Central Library’s Riley Room. The screening is free and open to the public. Co-sponsors include Hoosiers for a Commonsense Health Plan, People of Faith for Access to Medicines, and Common Cause/Indiana.
But these high-profile price tags only represent the extreme edge of an industry that has consistently hiked up the costs of essential medicines. From 2012 to 2015, list prices on medicines made by large pharmaceutical corporations rose by over 12 percent a year, far exceeding the less than 2 percent annual rate of inflation. Already in 2017, the drug company Pfizer has raised the prices of 90-plus drugs by over 20 percent.
Not coincidentally, pharmaceutical corporations enjoy some of the world’s highest profit margins. It is also not a coincidence that millions of Americans are forced to skip medicine doses each year because they cannot afford them, including one-quarter of all cancer patients.
Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly and Company is a part of this disturbing trend. It is just one of three manufacturers of insulin, which is necessary for the survival of persons with Type 1 diabetes and many persons with Type 2 diabetes. In near lock-step with the other two manufacturers, Lilly raised the price of its version of insulin, Humalog, by a whopping 325 percent from 2010 to 2015.
In one tragic case, a U.S. man died of diabetic ketoacidosis after his GoFundMe campaign for insulin fell short of its goal. Physicians report seeing an increasing number of similarly insulin-deprived patients coming into emergency rooms in crisis. The insulin price increases have been called “price-gouging, plain and simple” by U.S. Senator Jon Tester (D-Montana) and a “racket” by an endocrinologist writing in the New York Times. The companies’ mirror-image insulin price increases have triggered a class-action lawsuit alleging collusion by Lilly and the other two manufacturers.
The U.S. public is angry about this state of affairs, with polls showing that three-quarters of Americans believe drug costs are unreasonable, and that those prices reflect greed by pharmaceutical corporations. There is particular frustration with the dynamic of taxpayers paying to research critical drugs, through the National Institutes of Health in particular, only to have the monopoly patents for those drugs turned over to private corporations. Politicians have taken note of this populist frustration, with even President Donald Trump going on record saying that pharma corporations are “getting away with murder,” and vowing to take action to lower drug prices.
Multiple members of Congress have proposed significant reforms, including the U.S. government exercising its right to allow far-cheaper generic versions to compete with patented medicines. One reform with bipartisan support would permit Americans to import prescription medicines from Canada and other major nations where medicine prices are far less.
One of the biggest reasons why those medicines are more affordable outside the U.S. is that every other major nation uses its health system purchasing power to negotiate down the price of medicines. But the lobbying might of the pharmaceutical industry — one of history’s biggest spenders on campaign contributions and lobbyists — pushed the U.S. Congress into requiring the Medicare system to pay the full corporate asking price for all drugs.
Unshackling the negotiating power of the Medicare system is the core reform advocated by the movie, Big Pharma: Market Failure. The film is independently produced in part by Richard Master, who owns a Pennsylvania frame manufacturing business, and argues that healthcare costs are making it difficult for U.S. businesses to hire workers and compete with non-U.S. companies. Master also produced the healthcare reform documentary, Fix It: Healthcare at the Tipping Point which is now available for free viewing online.
Film co-sponsor Hoosiers for a Commonsense Health Plan is Indiana’s affiliate of Physicians for a National Health Plan, and was a key contributor to Indiana’s decision to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. HCHP hosted several screenings of Fix It, and obtained the rights to show Big Pharma: Market Failure in Indiana. People of Faith for Access to Medicines (PFAM) is a new national organization, based out of Indianapolis, which is building a faith-based movement to push for access to medicines as a moral imperative and human right. Common Cause/Indiana is a longtime advocate of healthcare reform, noting how campaign contributions and lobbying dollars have distorted our healthcare system.