Harrop: 2 cheers for drugmakers; third rests on price reforms

Drug companies have stood up to Trump’s empty promises. Now they can deliver on assuring fair prices.

By Froma Harrop / syndicated columnist

America’s big drug companies are refusing to let President Trump use them as campaign props. That is right and proper.

First, nine of them pledged to not release a vaccine before one is deemed effective and safe. Having failed to manage or even acknowledge the Covid-19 crisis, Trump has turned to pushing the fantasy that an acceptable vaccine would appear by Nov. 3.

Big Pharma said not before its time. The companies vowed to “stand with science,” a point that has to be made nowadays.

Then the drug companies refused to participate in the Trump Card scheme. Trump wanted to send seniors $100 cards to help pay for drugs; presumably with his name plastered on them.

“We could not agree to the administration’s plan to issue one-time savings cards right before a presidential election,” a spokeswoman for PhRMA, an industry trade group, said.

And so, two cheers for them.

The third cheer is being withheld until the industry stops gouging Americans on the price of their products. Nearly every country negotiates what these companies may charge their people. This one does not. And that’s why a pack of insulin injection pens carries a list price of $530 in the U.S. but costs less than $100 in Canada. (Americans can no longer go to Canada to buy them, thanks to the coronavirus.)

Drugmakers get away with this because Republicans (and a few bought Democrats) make sure they can. Trump is acutely aware of Americans’ anger at this outrage, so he talks about bringing drug prices to heel; and talks and talks.

During the 2016 campaign, Trump promised to let Medicare negotiate what it pays for drugs. (The Republicans who wrote the 2003 Medicare drug benefit law specifically forbade the government to bargain on prices.) After the election, that plan promptly vanished.

Trump has since aired proposals to tie drug prices in the U.S. to those paid in other countries. With a tough election now breathing down on him, Trump last week signed an executive order to set up pilot programs to do that in Medicare. The drug industry opposes the idea and is expected to block it with a suit, which the administration of course knows.

Trump’s lack of seriousness on drug-price fleecing can be seen in his choice of secretary of health and human services. Alex Azar is a former lobbyist and executive of the drug giant Eli Lilly and Co.

“This administration,” Azar said flatly, “does not believe in … setting prices for drugs by government fiat.”

Trump is reportedly about to approve drug imports from Canada. Florida would probably be the first state to get federal approval, for obvious political reasons.

Never mind that Canada, population 37 million, cannot and does not want to become drug supplier to the United States, population 330 million.

It takes some fancy footwork for this administration to give even lip service to importing drugs from Canada. What Azar said “this administration does not believe in” is exactly what Canada does. Trump is in effect saying that foreign countries can negotiate drug prices on behalf of Americans, but Americans’ own government can’t.

The drug companies surely know that they’ve been growing fat off a kind of protection racket whereby the U.S. government lets them jack up the prices they charge desperate Americans. As long as Republicans are in charge, they’ll get away with it.

But with well-crafted price discipline, the companies could still make good money and develop great products. When that happens, they will receive a deserved third cheer.

Not getting suckered into taking sides in the presidential campaign, however, deserves applause right now. Thank you, drugmakers, for respecting the democratic process. The third cheer now awaits.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. Email her at fharrop@gmail.com.

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