CBS News’s 60 Minutes offers a chilling account of the passing of the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act by Congress in 2003. The account illustrates the extent of the corruption and irresponsibility plaguing the relationship between the federal government and the pharmaceutical industry: the industry has had unfettered control over the passing of laws and the control of information through the government, particularly during the President Bush’s two terms. Notably, many Republican House representatives who voted for the bill later stated that they would not have voted in favor of the bill had they been presented with the true numerical data, data that was repressed for evidently political reasons. Medicare Chief Actuary Richard Foster revised the estimated costs of the extremely expensive program at $534 billion dollars prior to the vote for the bill, but his superior administrator in the Medicare program, Tom Scully, ordered him not to report the new data to Congress lest he lose his job. Perhaps not surprisingly, Scully, as well as the bill’s greatest supporters in the House of Representatives (Congressmen Billy Tauzin, Linda Fishman, Jeremy Allen, Kathleen Weldon, Jim Barnette, and federal officials John McManus and Pat Morrisey) all subsequently were hired by pharmaceutical companies (mostly as lobbyists in Washington, D.C.), some with multimillion dollar contracts.
The Medicare prescription drug bill, allegedly providing benefits to many seniors, was written by pharmaceutical industry lobbyists with the intent of minimizing the price negotiation power of the federal government with respect to the massive Medicare program and maximizing its profit margins. The 60 Minutes report quantitatively measures the loss to American seniors with respect to a lack of negotiation of drug prices by comparing Medicare and the VA program for veterans: for example, a year’s supply of one cholesterol drug (simvastatin) costs a Medicare beneficiary $1,485, but only costs a VA beneficiary $127.
I personally don’t know how much value there is to gain by turning physicians into politicians, but I do think that physicians need to be a very vocal interest group. Furthermore, as I have stressed previously, physicians really need to work close with our allies (from all camps, including within the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, federal/state/local governments, law firms, and perhaps most of all, our patients – the American public) to battle against these criminal forces that financially and/or physically harm patients. Corrupt is too soft a word to use here, because corruption is something that we look upon with cynicism but also depressed inaction (because we think these are bad acts, but not really tangibly harmful). Rather, these acts are criminal: because they are done for personal gain at the tangible expense of others, and because these are unacceptable enough to get people to speak up and work together to make sure this doesn’t happen anymore. The new House of Representatives is trying to overturn the bill and give the Medicare program negotiating power again. The pharmaceutical industry, and President Bush, are working to veto the bill.
Now would be a good time to act. Speak up. Make sure everyone around you knows about it. Make sure that your Representatives and Senators know that you are supporting them in revising the Medicare prescription drug bill, and that may help give them the confidence and license to override President Bush’s veto.