“GETTING AWAY WITH MURDER”
by Sam Bocetta, ©2017
(Oct. 24, 2017) — Who do you think are the biggest contributors to political campaigns? The NRA? Leftist think tanks? Shadowy Russian Oligarchs?
Well, the headline above probably gave it away, but in fact it’s Big Pharma. Drugmakers have contributed enormous sums of money to politicians over the past decade, with some putting the total figure at close to $2.5 billion. And they expect a return on their investment, whether this comes in form of protected profits, or more relaxed drug legislation.
Though the current burst of spending arguably started during the Clinton administration, none of those that have come since have done much to challenge it. In fact, until recently the effects of this lobbying were very difficult to see within the US itself. It is only the recent publicity surrounding the country’s “opioid epidemic” that has spurred lawmakers into belated action.
The Scale Of The Problem
Just a few weeks ago, and just before his appointee for “drug czar” was forced to step down over a conflict of interest, Trump made it sound like he would come after those politicians who take money from pharmaceutical companies.
“They contribute massive amounts of money to political people,” he stated, while standing next to the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell.
“I don’t know, Mitch, maybe even to you,” he added.
He was right, of course. Reports suggest that fully 90% of members of the House of Representatives, and everyone except 3 of our 100 Senators, have taken campaign contributions from pharma companies.
In return, these companies receive a variety of legal advantages in the US. The majority of these are designed to limit competition in the US market, blocking (for instance) Indian pharmaceutical companies from selling drugs cheaper than their US competitors.
Sometimes, however, the concessions achieved by the industry have huge effects on domestic economics. A 2003 law, essentially written by the industry, prevents the federal government from inviting bids for the manufacture of medicines and medical devices. Instead, they are contractually obliged to pay whatever price the pharmaceutical company quotes them.
The stupidity of this should be obvious to all, and it is worth noting that this is a concession that is unique to pharmaceutical companies. Defense contractors, for instance, also give large political donations, but the government is still allowed to shop around when it needs new military equipment.
When the Army wanted a new concealed carry pistol in 2009, for instance, it field tested dozens of weapons before selecting the Glock 26. There was no such process when the cost of the EpiPen antidotes for allergic reactions surged to $600 last year – the government just had to pay up.
Trump’s political ideals still remain murky, of course, to the extent to which some have wondered whether he is a Republican at all. But ever the businessman, in recent speeches he has signaled that this situation – where pharmaceutical companies are essentially allowed to fix prices – means that they are “getting away with murder.”
The Opioid Epidemic
Others have come to belated focus on another outcome of corruption in the pharmaceutical industry: the fact that it is fueling the current opioid epidemic in America. Deaths from opioid overdose increased by 400% between 1999 and 2015.
Instead of attempting to deal with the problem, politicians have followed Big Pharmas’ line – that the problem lies with those who have become addicted to these drugs, rather than with over-prescribing under industry pressure.
Given the amount of pharma money coursing through Congress, any representative who chooses to take a stand is likely to face significant hostility. Laws designed to curb excessive prescribing of opioids have consistently failed in the face of well-organized campaigns funded by the pharmaceutical industry.
These campaigns operate in two ways. On one side there are large research organizations such as the Pain Care Forum, who claim scientific independence but are in fact little more than industry mouthpieces. They spent some $740 million over the last decade campaigning against limits on opioid prescriptions, according to the Center For Public Integrity.
The second approach is more direct. The pharmaceutical industry makes direct campaign contributions, and expects the politicians they “help” to vote in accordance with the interests of the industry. Some of the figures here are simply astounding – Senator Orrin Hatch is currently the biggest recipient of such funds, having received $208,000 over the past year.
Whatever your politics, this corruption is clearly a problem. In fact, it might be one of the only areas in which liberals and conservatives can find common ground, not least because it is a problem that has run through every recent administration.
Though pharma lobbying, in its modern form, arguably started under the Clinton administration (no surprise there), each administration in turn has failed to do anything about it. The fact that so many politicians – on both sides – are dependent on this money in order to run their campaigns, coupled with the fact that most of the effects of this corruption are hidden to everyday Americans, has long conspired to keep it hidden.
Now, with the opioid crisis increasingly in the news, perhaps we are faced with a golden opportunity to do something about it.
And in doing so, we might also be able to find some common ground. Though conservatives and liberals seem more and more distant from each other, everyone except the extreme fringes accepts that some of these practices – price fixing, and making lawmakers dependent on pharma money – are inherently wrong, and the sign of a system in desperate need of fixing.
Sam Bocetta is a retired engineer who worked for over 35 years as a defense contractor for the U.S. Navy, specializing in electronic warfare and advanced computer systems. He teaches in Ottawa, Canada as a part time engineering professor and is the ASEAN affairs correspondent for Gun News Daily.