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Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Amazing) pitches an insanely simple idea in the Washington Post today. Since manufacturers of generic prescription drugs are under investigation for an apparent price-rigging scheme, how about we do something more direct to bring down generic drug costs than simply telling bad actors to knock it off? Instead, suggests Warren, how about the US Department of Health and Human Services use its emergency powers to protect public health and start manufacturing certain prescription medications itself, or if necessary, contract with manufacturers to make meds available at low costs? Well huh??????


Warren lays out her case with some basics about how drugs are licensed, and how generics have (surprise!) not turned out to be magic when it comes to keeping prescriptions affordable. For one thing, patent protections have been used to skew the market by limiting competition and extending patents for minor "improvements" that mean some meds never make it to the generic market. Worse, even the generic market is seeking huge price hikes, because while the pills may be generic, many are only made by a few huge companies:

Today, 40 percent of generic drugs are made by a single company, and the majority are manufactured by only one or two companies. With so little competition for generics, drug makers can push up prices and squeeze consumers without consequence. As a result, prescription drug prices are crushing families. Millions of Americans are skipping required doses and putting their health at risk because they can't afford to renew their prescriptions.

This isn't how it's supposed to be, Warren notes: The nation's regulatory regime used to be aimed at promoting competition and bringing down prices, but now, even the generic pharma companies have gotten bigger and bigger, using their lobbying clout to limit competition and boost their profits. Which is why Warren has introduced the "Affordable Drug Manufacturing Act," a bill that would give the government the ability to provide meds when the "free" market isn't working right. Not willy-nilly, but in specific conditions:

HHS would manufacture or contract for the manufacture of generic drugs in cases in which no company is manufacturing a drug, when only one or two companies manufacture a drug and its price has spiked, when the drug is in shortage, or when a medicine listed as essential by the World Health Organization faces limited competition and high prices.

Case in point: asthma inhalers, which keep people from dying but also have almost no generic versions, because the manufacturers of the devices take care to tweak their patents. Same goes for insulin.

But wait! Isn't Warren trying to hurt the free market? Well, only a little, she says -- like only when the "free" market is hurting people's health. When that happens, public manufacturing would "be used to fix markets, not replace them." The bill would allow manufacturers to bring to market their own generic versions of drugs the government has stepped in to provide at an affordable cost, but you bet your ass there's a catch:

[If] a potential manufacturer thinks it can do better, the bill provides that the license to manufacture the drug is continually offered for sale, with the only condition being that the buyer would agree to keep selling the product to consumers at competitive prices.

Warren points out this isn't exactly an unprecedented intervention in the pharma market, because the government already

contracts with private manufacturers to produce stockpiles of drugs critical to protecting and treating Americans in the event of a biological, chemical or nuclear attack. My proposal would use similar tools to address the public health crisis resulting from unaffordable medicines.

HHS has the power to protect the populace from an anthrax attack, so hey, how about protecting us from an attack of rogue capitalists?

Warren acknowledges that limited government manufacture of generic drugs is just one out of a bunch of other strategies to make meds affordable (and though she doesn't say it here, yeah, the big goal is single payer). In addition, she wants to see Medicare use its power to negotiate prices just like every other sane country's national health system does. She'd also like to see reform of the patent system that Big Pharma has gamed so badly, as well as allowing imports of meds that are cheaper in other countries, but still subject to safety regs. Ultimately, by law, no one should have to pay so much out of pocket for their medications that they have to choose between staying healthy and being fed, or keeping a roof over their heads.

You bet the big drug companies will hate this and their personally owned representatives will squeal it's going to destroy America. Just like they did with Medicare in the 1960s, and yet they're still in business, huh? But just think how much the economy would benefit with a workforce that can actually stay healthy and go to work at all the green jobs we're also going to create?

[WaPo / CBS News / NYT / Elizabeth Warren]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.

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