Americans don't have the best heath care system in the world, just the most expensive one. The cost of pharmaceuticals is a prime example. Americans can easily pay 10 times or more what patients pay for the same drugs in some European and Asian countries. That's because the United States has an easily manipulated patent system that keeps cheap generic drugs off the market and an overreliance on the marketplace to set prices. A few changes to both would reduce costs and save lives.
The New York Times recently focused on the prevalent, chronic disease of asthma. It afflicts about 40 million people, many of them children, at a cost of $56 billion annually to treat, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The newspaper identified one overriding reason people end up in the hospital or dead because of asthma: out-of-reach prices for the medications that control their symptoms.
There are two primary drivers of the dramatic differences in cost for asthma treatments in Europe and the United States. First, drug companies have become adept at re-patenting new versions of old drugs to stave off competition from cheaper generics. The companies make tiny alterations in a product's formula or delivery system and gain new patents. So there are no generic asthma inhalers in the United States even though they are widely available in Europe. The patent office in the United States should end its practice of granting new patents for inconsequential tweaks.
The second reason is that other governments police drug prices, either directly or indirectly, to make life-saving drugs accessible and protect taxpayers' pockets. This is in stark contrast to the hands-off approach here, the result of a Congress beholden to pharmaceutical industry lobbyists. When Medicare Part D was established, Congress prohibited the program from negotiating drug prices, which sent costs ballooning. And the United States Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute, which considers which treatments should be covered by federal programs, is not allowed to consider cost-effectiveness in making recommendations. These sorts of restrictions ensure that Americans and the government overpay for essential medicine. Far from letting the marketplace operate, the rules distort the market power that the government as the largest buyer of drugs should have.
There are plenty of ways to get reasonably priced medicine into people's hands and reduce costs in our health care system. All that's needed is a Congress that puts people's health above drug company influence.