How We Compound the Problems at the New England Compounding Center

Tomorrow, legislative committees in both Congress and the State House will hold hearings into the problems at the New England Compounding Center, the pharmaceutical operation that has been identified as the source of contaminated steroid drugs that cause meningitis. So far, 32 people in the U.S. who have taken the steroids have died and 438 others have fallen ill.

Federal and state lawmakers will be asking, appropriately, why the outbreak occurred.

I hope they consider that the very idea that government has an important interest in regulating business for the benefit of public health and safety is under attack. Environmental protection, oversight of the banking industry, and monitoring the safety of our places or work, our food and our drugs must all be sacrificed, the argument goes, to the demands of the job creator class to be free from such intrusions. Business can be trusted to regulate itself. In the words of a member of the U.S. House: “the food supply in America is very safe because the private sector self-polices.” This is a message of very small consolation to the increasing number of those who contract foodborne diseases like salmonella and listeria each year.

The largest battle in this war on regulation is at the federal level, where Congress can refuse to fund critical agencies like the Food & Drug Administration or can decline to regulate certain industries (like pharmacies, such as the New England Compounding Center, that do not directly manufacture drugs), leaving that responsibility largely to the states.

Massachusetts is not yet a leading battleground in the war on regulation, although Scott Brown’s sole prescription for the economy was to throw off the wet blanket of “job killing” regulations. And we may be starting to hear other rumbles in the distance. This year, for example, Republicans in the State Legislature proposed a bill that would allow a legislative committee to bottle up any proposed regulation for up to two years, citing the need for Massachusetts to become more like Texas in “constructive, job-creating dialogue and positive action.”

So when the owners of the New England Compounding Center become “indignant” at the prospect of being visited by regulators and just don’t have the time to answer their questions, let’s not forget how we have encouraged this arrogance.

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