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Pharma pays academics to justify high drug prices

Written by Diane Archer

A new report from Pro Publica and Consumer Reports reveals how, behind the scenes, pharmaceutical companies are paying academics to justify their high drug prices. While this has always been the case, it is being taken to a whole other level.

Pharmaceutical companies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the last decade to protect their profits, to keep Medicare from negotiating drug prices, and to change the opinion of those who believe that their research and development costs do not justify their exorbitant prices. Historically, they’ve paid doctors to promote their drugs, donated large sums to non-profit disease groups, and contributed to the campaign funds of policy makers to promote their agendas.  Now they are also paying off health economists.

Over the last three years, drug companies have enlisted academics and other thought leaders across the country to give talks, write articles, address policy makers in Congress to support their new cures for hepatitis C and persuade Medicare, Medicaid and private insurers to cover them. To facilitate the process, companies have sprung up with the express purpose of enlisting support from health economists and other academics, with Pharma’s financial backing.

Precision Health Economics boasts that it is “Led by professors at elite research universities,” produces “academic publications in the world’s leading research journals” and helps foster “formal public debates in prestigious, closely watched forums.” Among a wide range of work for the pharmaceutical industry, it consults for three manufacturers of a super high-priced hepatitis C vaccine.

Precision Health’s team of academics from Stanford, USC and Harvard, among other institutions, tends to make the case that high drug prices are justified to enable innovation rather than that high drug prices are undermining access to medically necessary medicines. It also counsels drug companies on how best to price their drugs.

Dr. Aaron Kesselheim, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School who studies pharmaceutical costs, argues that “There is substantial evidence that the sources of transformative drug innovation arise from publicly funded research in government and academic labs.”  Kesselheim has determined that drugs are priced at as high a level as drug companies believe they can get away with.

Leonard D. Schaefer Center for Health Policy and Economics at University of Southern California also gets substantial funding from drug companies. And, a CEO of Amgen is on its advisory board.

Often academics’ conflicts of interest are not disclosed. Publications like Health Affairs do not require disclosure.

If you want Congress to rein in drug prices, please sign this petition.

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