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On Aging with Dr. Roger Branch Sr.: The drug crisis in America
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Dr. Roger Branch Sr.

This country is in the midst of a drug crisis, and it is steadily getting worse.

Of course, many countries - maybe most countries - have drug problems. Things that are defined as illegal - at least in the United States - threaten to overwhelm entire nations in some cases. Those who control production, distribution and sales become rich and powerful. Opponents and competitors die, as do addicts. Governments are corrupted. It seems to be impossible to stop this juggernaut.

We share fully in the problem of illegal drugs. They pour into the country by land, sea and air. And local production of crystal meth appears to be a growth industry if news accounts of arrests offer an accurate measure. Constant reports of murder, violence and robbery really reflect the impact of illegal drugs, from urban streets to back country roads. Seniors are the least able to protect themselves, and unfortunately, some of them are involved in the "business."

However, the uglier crisis here involves the legal drug business. A handful of major drug companies produce and sell medications necessary for the survival of millions of people. They operate in a protected economic environment and reap the highest profits anywhere. Confronted, their officials dislike the spotlight but do not change their ways. While this situation has been noted in various places, I have drawn much of the following information from the May 30, 2016, issue of Time magazine.

Research and development of new drugs is expensive, but one company, Valeant Pharmaceuticals International, skips that step. It buys the patents for unique, life-saving drugs and then hikes the prices, leading to mind-boggling profits. Hauled before a congressional committee, Valeant officials were properly subdued but promised no reforms. Canaccord Genuity, an investment bank, defends Valeant, saying that its price hikes were not out of the ordinary in the industry.

There is more than a grain of truth in that statement. For example, the price for Nitropress, a blood pressure drug from Marathon Pharmaceuticals, jumped from $215 to $881 in a year. Time records a similar, if sometimes less greedy, pattern of price increases in recent years for other companies: Angen for Embrel, Pfizer for Lyrica, Otsuka America for Abilify, Eli Lilly for Cialis, Sanofy-Aventis for Lantus Solostar and AstraZenica for Symbicort, among the most notable. No wonder drug companies post fancy profit margins: double digits, with some approaching 50 percent.

The standard argument that supply and demand will fix market issues just does not fit. Sick, perhaps dying people have no choice. They must buy. The number of products that will work is limited, sometimes to just one. Syprine, an old standard drug, is the only treatment for Wilson's disease, and since Valeant bought it in 2010, the price has risen nearly 3,200 percent. The drug companies are in a protected status in controlling supply. They are guaranteed patent protection for many years and cover everything from contents to formula and format, later tweaking the contents a tad to extend the patent for additional years. In time, the patent expires and generics become a choice, but presently, they make up only a small part of the market.

There is a growing crisis. These prices are devouring money from Medicare and Medicaid. Younger people with insurance are confronted with huge co-pays. Young and old, people suddenly find themselves asking, "Food or medicine?" Some members of Congress are declaring that the mess must be fixed. Of course, Congress can do a lot. Patent laws are not set in stone; they can be changed. Those who run Medicare can be empowered to negotiate drug prices. This is done routinely in other countries. However, a veteran physician told me recently that there will be no such fix because "the politicians have their hands too deep in the pockets of the drug companies."

Both candidates for the office of president, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, promise major reforms if elected, but even if they try, they must have the cooperation of a majority of both houses of Congress. In Washington, D.C., such cooperation has been virtually unknown for a long time. Even if new office holders are elected, they act just like the old ones.

In the absence of political relief at the national level, there is action in several states, but it is an uphill battle against the money of the drug companies. People who live in the right places can take their prescriptions across the line into Canada, but that is a long drive from south Georgia.

The next time you see a national politician, ask him or her why no one is actually doing anything about our drug crisis. It might not spur said politician to do anything; said politician might not be able to do anything anyway. But if a lot of us did the same thing, something could happen. Or, if we regularly replace these politicians via the ballot, maybe we can eventually find some whose pockets are clean.

Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.



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