State Budget: Big Pharma 2, Consumers 0

The pharmaceutical industry scored two big wins in the recently-passed state budget. The rest of us took the losses.

First, state law now allows the pharmaceutical industry to offer coupons for discounts to consumers who choose higher-cost brand name drugs over generic equivalents. Drug companies would like us to think these coupons are evidence of an altruistic desire to ensure that no one goes without needed medications. But inducing consumers to use a co-pay discount coupon to purchase a brand name drug results in significantly more profit for the drug companies. These profits come at the expense of the employers who are providing the prescription drug coverage. Eventually, everyone in the insurance pool pays more.

Second, the state’s gift ban law was weakened. That law, which was passed in 2008 in order to control Big Pharma’s aggressive marketing of drugs to the physicians who prescribe them, prohibited gifts of more than $50, including restaurant meals and entertainment. Supporters of the original gift ban law, including HealthCare for All, AARP and MassPIRG, have made the irrefutable point that the tab for wining and dining doctors is inevitably passed along to the rest of us in the form of drugs that are more expensive but not necessarily better.

Perhaps by coincidence, but perhaps not, one pharmaceutical giant, GlaxoSmithKline, was in Boston last week on another matter: an appearance in federal court on charges of illegally marketing prescription drugs. The company agreed to pay a record $3 billion in fines and restitution and to plead guilty to providing gifts to physicians in order to promote the use of the antidepressant Paxil in children, even though the Food and Drug Administration had not approved it for pediatric use and even though the company knew that antidepressants may increase the risk of suicidal thinking and behavior in young patients. Although a fine of $3 billion sounds like a lot of money, as Robert Reich has noted, compared to the $27 billion in profits that GlaxoSmithKline received, it’s simply a slap on the wrist. Until the ban on television promotion of prescription drugs is reinstated and until criminal charges are brought against Big Pharma executives, Reich says, nothing of significance will change.

Perhaps you find all this news depressing. If so, GlaxoSmithKline suggests, be sure to ask your doctor about Paxil.

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