My friend Terry was sitting at my computer making one of his magic repairs when I offered him a glass of wine. He turned slowly in the desk chair, looked soberly into me and shrugged.
“I have Hepatitis C,” he said. “I can’t drink alcohol.”
Terry Guy has been our excellent neighborhood computer tech nearly 10 years. The Hepatitis C virus weakens him and could take his life. He has hope in the form of a new drug, Sovaldi, But that hope could be killed off because of an issue with the price of the drug.
Researchers at Liverpool University estimate the production cost of Sovaldi for the 12-week cure ranges from $68 to $136. The same drug in generic form is now being sold in India at $335 for the entire course.
Would you believe Terry, my Kansas City, Kan., friend, must pay $1,000 per pill, $84,000 total for the wholesale cost of the medicine alone, likely $100,000 total for the three-month cure?
He cannot afford it.
But we Americans certainly can if we all chip in our tax money for these millions of Hepatitis C victims.
This must be the reasoning of Gilead Sciences Inc., the manufacturer that imposed that incredible American price. What’s the name of that game wherein the gangster holds a pistol to your daughter’s head until you cough up your last penny?
My Webster’s 20th Century dictionary defines “extortion” in these words: “The act of wresting money, etc., from a person by force … or by any undue exercise of power; sometimes applied to the exaction of too high a price.” Amazingly, in this case it’s all perfectly legal.
Terry, 60, had not been born when Dr. Jonas Salk introduced the first of the polio vaccines that almost wiped the disease from the globe. He fondly recalls researchers of that era who saved him and his childhood friends from polio and other diseases.
“Those doctors earned a good living and did great work for humanity,” Terry commented. “They didn’t try to squeeze the last drop of blood out of sick people.”
Unlike other diseases that attack only a few victims and thus offer little profit for the cure, Hepatitis C infects more than 200 million people worldwide. Solvadi, sold cheaply, would still make a mint. But Gilead wants more, an avalanche of profit.
So the federal government, through Medicare, the Affordable Care Act, the Veterans Administration, and other agencies must desperately scramble for a way to pay the corporation with a gun to the heads of our human hostages.
Though Terry is an Army veteran from the 1970s, the VA’s budget now can only cover desperate cases, like veterans with advanced liver disease. He must wait — until when? Nobody knows.
Our government is the victim but also the enabler of Gilead Sciences Inc.
Without the U.S. patent, which runs until 2028, such price-gouging would be impossible. Generic drug makers would spring up and sell Solvadi for a song. India got its low Gilead price only after first refusing to offer a patent for their market.
We must have patents, of course; just not the extortionate drug prices they make possible.
Perhaps more outrageous, the drug was developed under the leadership of Dr. Raymond Schinazi, a professor of biochemistry at Emory University in programs heavily funded by our National Institutes of Health and the Veterans Administration. Our own government paid a share for the pistol that Gilead holds to my friend’s head, the weapon being their power to withhold a cure.
Many corporations and the pharmaceutical industry recoil from the real answer to this problem, what they see as a dirty word:
If you hand the corporation free taxpayer money to develop a drug, plus a patent to guarantee its monopoly, why shouldn’t the government regulate? Sure, Gilead deserves a rich reward. But the American people deserve protection from shameless corporate predators.
By regulation, I mean laws or executive rules that protect ordinary citizens from powerful private interests.
This is what the boys and girls of Fox News ridicule as “the Nanny State,” the United States of America as a community of citizens acting to protect each other. Through the years we’ve proven it can be done.From the 19th century well into the 20th, corporations under the “liberty of contract” doctrine won Supreme Court battles to kill child labor laws passed by Congress.
It was President Franklin Roosevelt’s Fair Labor Standards Act — regulation — that finally allowed children to stop working and stay in school. President Barack Obama won some vital measures, including the Affordable Care Act, in the first two years of his administration when Democrats held a majority in Congress. Then the Republican majority shut him down by refusing to pass most legislation.
Nevertheless, he went on to write more than 560 major executive regulations, including one that raised the minimum wage of federal contract workers from $7.25 to $10.10 hourly and offered paid sick leave. He mandated that by 2018 cars and light trucks must have back-up cameras. He stiffened conflict-of-interest rules in the financial industry, demanded improved fuel efficiency for vehicles, won a net neutrality rule for the internet.
Still not done, still hanging fire: the Hepatitis C drug regulation that would cap Gilead’s profit gusher and save the life of my friend, Terry.
Charles Hammer, email@example.com