When it comes to our medicines system, it is hard to overstate how profoundly broken it is.
Here in the U.S., many of our neighbors, especially seniors, are forced to choose between paying for medicine or food. Hundreds of cancer physicians recently wrote an angry public letter protesting the fact that one in five of their patients can’t afford to fill their prescriptions—not surprising, with the cost of cancer medicines now averaging over $100,000.
Hepatitis C and prostate cancer drugs are so expensive that even insured patients go without the drugs they need. Insurance companies and government programs balk at paying pharmaceutical corporation mark-ups that can make a pill manufactured for $1 carry a $1,000 price tag.
Meanwhile, the corporations that own the rights to those medicines are rolling in money. Some enjoy breathtaking corporate profits as high as 42 percent annually, with the industry’s average return on assets more than double that of the rest of the Fortune 500. Pharma CEO pay exceeds even the swollen average of other big corporations.
No wonder, given the gold-plated business model of the pharmaceutical industry. These corporations grab government-granted monopolies on government-developed medicines, then sell the medicines—often back to governments, their biggest customers—at prices set at hundreds of times over manufacturing costs. When you hold a monopoly on a life-saving product, you can force the desperately ill to pay any price you name.
As bad as we have it in the U.S., the crisis is even worse in many other parts of the world. I recently spoke with a South African mother who faces an early and unnecessary death. Neither she nor her government’s healthcare program can come close to affording the monopoly-protected breast cancer medicine that may save her. United Nations health officials estimate that 10 million people die each year because they don’t receive medicines that exist, but are unaffordable.
Ten million people is more people dying each year than the entire population of New York City. Many of those who die are children whose families and communities couldn’t afford basic vaccine protection. Many more suffer in unrelenting pain and misery, all because medicines cost too much.
We can fix this system, and we can fix it soon. Here are three reasons why a faith-based movement can help:
1. The Time is Ripe. The medicines problem is no secret. People across the U.S. are well aware that the cost of prescription drugs is bankrupting families in their own communities, and putting a huge strain on state and federal budgets. Outrageous EpiPen price hikes and the greed of “Pharma Bro” Martin Shkreli are the high-profile symptoms of a diseased medicines system that features routine double-digit annual price increases on many necessary drugs.
And people are angry. With huge majorities demanding a change in our medicines system. An ambitious California ballot initiative is aimed directly at lowering medicine prices. Patients and media are seeing through the corporate damage-control smokescreen of promised discounts and limited donations.
The inability of the pharmaceutical industry to curb its own gluttony suggests that the corporate monopoly on life-saving goods carries within itself the seeds of its own destruction. Social movement history tells us that profound and widespread frustration with the status quo is a prerequisite for systemic change. With medicines reform, that first ingredient is already in place.
2. The Solution is at Hand. There are many social justice problems that can and must be fixed, but will take significant reallocation of resources to do so. Think of the refugee crisis, climate change, affordable housing. Comparatively, the medicines crisis offers an easy solution. There are already more than enough taxpayer dollars flowing into the system now to make essential medicines available to all, and still fund more and better research for new medicines.
The U.S. government alone puts tens of billions of dollars annually into medicine research, and then pays billions more in monopoly markups on medicines—many of which were actually developed by that same government funding. For now, suffice it to say that current law allows the U.S. government to bypass the huge corporate markups, and save more than enough money in medicine prices to exceed pharma corporations’ claimed research investments.
And that research can be far better targeted to discovering medicines we need. When we stop funding pharma’s eternal quest for the 7th copy-cat version of an erectile dysfunction drug destined for a billion-dollar marketing campaign, we will find the resources are available to do better—much better.
3. Faith-Based Advocacy Can Put the Movement Over the Top. There are already many wonderful access to medicines advocates and organizations, including the inspiring people behind Knowledge Ecology International, Médecins Sans Frontières’ Access Campaign, Public Citizen, Universities Allied for Essential Medicines, HealthGAP, Treatment Action Campaign, and others.
But all involved agree that a successful medicines reform movement needs to be strong within the U.S., since our government is the chief sponsor of toxic medicines policies both domestically and internationally. And all agree that the movement is not yet strong at the grassroots level in the U.S.
That is where the faith community comes in. In the U.S. and beyond, our communities and politics are still significantly influenced by faith-based organizations and activists. History’s iconic social movements, including the U.S. civil rights movement, the labor movement, the anti-apartheid movement, et al., relied on faith-based organizations for grassroots organizing, outreach to new allies, and morally-resonant messaging.
For our current faith-based organizations, access to medicines should be a natural priority issue. Virtually every congregation and creed embraces two principles that are at core of the access to medicines challenge: basic equity among all people rich and poor, and access to health care. Roman Catholic institutions alone provide one-quarter of the world’s healthcare services.
So, at PFAM, our mission is to push access to medicines up to a priority spot on the faith-based agenda. Join us!
Click here for six tips for keep your drug costs down.