Peter Pitts: NFIB errs with import drug support
|Peter Pitts: NFIB errs with import drug support
By Peter Pitts
- Leaders of the National Federation of Independent Business — America’s largest small business organization — have announced their support for the Pharmaceutical Market Access and Drug Safety Act of 2007, a congressional measure that would allow the importation of pharmaceuticals from abroad.
As the NFIB explained in a letter to the bill’s sponsors, “Importation offers a means of reducing one of the most rapidly rising health care costs facing consumers today —spending on prescription drugs.” Unfortunately, the NFIB got its facts wrong.
Sure, prescription drugs are expensive, but they’re not to blame for rising health care costs. For every dollar the U.S. spends on health care, only 11.5 cents goes toward prescription drugs. The rest goes to everything else — from doctor visits and hospitalizations to administrative charges and insurance.
And drugs are often the better bargain. After all, a daily cholesterol-lowering drug like Lipitor is far less expensive than emergency heart surgery.
Health care costs are rising for small business owners (and everyone else) because the work force is aging, waistlines are expanding, previously untreatable conditions like diabetes are now manageable, the system is archaically focused on acute care, and insurance premiums are through the roof.
From 1998 to 2003, for instance, insurance companies increased their premiums by an average of $104.62 per person. During that same time period, prescription-drug costs increased by only $22.48. As for that other $82.14? Well, perhaps the NFIB should ask the insurance companies.
The importation measure also comes at the expense of future pharmaceutical innovation. In other words, the NFIB appears willing to sacrifice tomorrow’s miracle drugs and health advances for short-term cost savings.
In a press release praising the NFIB for its support of the drug importation measure, Sen. Olympia Snowe R-Maine stated, “[NFIB members] recognize overwhelmingly that competition will help reduce drug costs and make health care more affordable for all Americans.”
Competition is generally a good thing. But with drugs, the rest of the developed world dictates costs through strong-arm tactics and outright price controls. The prices Americans pay for medicine fuel global research and development.
The rest of the world gets a free ride, and U.S. consumers get stuck with the bill. It’s not fair, just or sustainable, but it’s a fact. This is what members of Congress and the NFIB should be up in arms about.
Finally, the NFIB is being sold a false bill of goods. Although the measure’s sponsors promise that the Pharmaceutical Market Access and Drug Safety Act will secure “a framework for the safe and legal importation of prescription drugs,” there’s no way to make such a guarantee.
Obtaining drugs from nations like Britain and France offers little protection, because pharmaceuticals and other goods move freely among the 27 E.U. member states through a system called “parallel trade.”
And because the E.U. does not require drug importers to record product information like batch numbers, it’s quite common for goods to travel outside official distribution channels.
Therefore, drugs purchased from “safe” countries may well have originated in Latvia, Cyprus, or elsewhere in the E.U., where there are ample opportunities for counterfeits to enter the legitimate supply chain.
Indeed, the World Health Organization estimates that up to 10 percent of globally traded drugs are counterfeit. Most originate in Asia and Latin America, where technology is making production cheaper and safety regulations are poorly enforced — perfect conditions for manufacturing and distributing fake drugs. Simply mandating safety by legislative fiat will not make imports safer.
America’s small business owners are the lifeblood of the nation’s economy. They deserve better representation than the NFIB is providing.
Peter J. Pitts is president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest and a former associate commissioner of the FDA.
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