Drug Corporations and Crumbling Health Care
by Nastya Petrovitch

The health care system in America has become seriously broken. Many people do not even have health insurance and even for those that do, the costs of health care are becoming prohibitively expensive. Drug prices have been rising rapidly, while insurance coverage of drugs have been decreasing. At the same time, the health care industry has been fraught with corruption, while the government often looks the other way. Health care has suffered greatly because of the unchecked power that drug companies have.

The advances in health care have been due to the big drug companies backing them. As a result, medical findings and experiments are biased because they depend on corporate approval to even be able to do research. Mary Clark (n.d., p. 69) writes that “today, little if any important science is done without the aid of well-equipped laboratories and well-trained technicians, both of which require considerable funding to maintain [which usually comes from corporations for] which they ultimately expect to make a profit.”

Not only do corporations have control over what research takes place, they also have a great influence on government policy by helping fund politician’s campaigns. By helping politicians into office, politicians become indebted to them. This means that politicians often have to advocate for the drug company’s financial interests, for fear that they will lose much needed financial support otherwise. This often has great implications on foreign policy. For example, “in 1998, [Al Gore] put great pressure on South Africa, threatening trade sanctions if the government didn’t cancel plans to use much cheaper generic AIDS drugs, which would cut into U.S. companies’ sales, [something that would affect] three million HIV-positive persons among its largely impoverished population [and was done at the time because] he had significant ties to the drug industry” (Blum 2000, p. 6). The big pharmaceutical companies would have a significant loss in profits if a country with as high of demand for AIDS drugs as South Africa stopped buying their drugs and bought generic versions instead. They used their power and influence to make sure that they could maximize their profitability off of the poor, dying people in South Africa (Blum). And because of their great control over government, the AIDS epidemic has been ravaging Africa, despite the availability of medicine that could allow them to live a long fruitful life.

Pharmaceutical companies charge astronomically high prices for drugs to get as much money as they can from consumers. Drugs have risen twice as fast as inflation, causing many Americans to not be able to afford the medications that they need (Anderson & Taylor, 2007, p. 374). Despite some calls for the government to keep drug prices under control, very little has been done to make medications more affordable for Americans (Carey & Barrett, 2001). Because of the high cost of drugs, many HMO’s and other health insurance providers are cutting drug coverage and increasing co-pays for consumers, compounding an already troublesome problem (Carey & Barrett). Often, drug companies release new drugs that have very little benefit to consumers, while running huge advertising campaigns to mislead Americans into thinking they need to get the drug (Carey & Barrett). Associate director of Kaiser Permanente’s physician unit, Dr. Sharon Levine (as cited in Carey & Barrett, 2001, p. 63) says that drugs Celebrex and Vioxx, which together net a total of $5.6 billion in sales, “are not more effective than Motrin, but they cost up to 60 times as much.” Through this and many other dirty tactics, they, namely the big five companies, Merck, Eli Lilly, Pfizer, Pharmacia, and Schering-Plough, have an average 30% return on investment (Carey & Barrett, p. 64). Many companies contend that high returns are needed to make up for the high risks involved in research (Carey & Barrett). But if there were such high risks involved, the returns would vary greatly from quarter to quarter and they all post significant rates of return consistently (Carey & Barrett). For example, since 1988, Merck has never seen a return rate below 28% (Carey & Barrett). Also, they use all kinds of legal maneuvers to keep patents on drugs and stop generic versions being made so they can make more of a profit (Carey & Barrett). They often sue to keep generics from reaching the market, which, under law, keeps the generic version from being released for 30 months after the suit is filed (Carey & Barrett, p. 70).

Another dirty tactic that they employ is through bribing doctors to prescribe their medication to patients. They often provide free lunches, drug samples, and other financial incentives even to medical students and residents in order to influence them to prescribe their medications once they become doctors (Turner 2002). This ends up meaning that drugs are prescribed not based on how they will help the patient but on how it benefits a company’s bottom line (Turner). Howard Schulman (as cited in Turner, para. 32) describes how “in many ways, drug industry tactics unduly influence prescribing patterns of physicians, the studies they conduct and the process of continuing medical education.”

However, some misguided critics believe that most pharmaceutical companies really care about helping consumers get the best treatment. In response to a measure aimed to block gifts to doctors, Patrick Sweeney (2002, para. 10) defends the practice, saying that only a few abuse the system and that he believes that “the industry is trying to be more responsible.” It is very naïve to think that the multi-billion corporations are taking medical students out to expensive dinners just simply because they want to educate them about the best medications out there. It is not in their best interest to do so. Their objective is to make as much profit as they can with as little expense as possible, and giving away gifts would not make much business sense unless there was going to be some possibility of profiting off of it. He also asserts that drug companies are helping the poor out through their free samples so that the poor can get the medication that they need. This could not be any more true. Much of the poor have little access to the medication or care they need (Anderson & Taylor, 2007). If they truly cared about helping the poor, they would not charge as much money for their drugs, something that would be far more beneficial to the poor than casually giving out some free samples here and there.

The drug companies, as well as the HMO’s and health insurance agencies, have made it impossible for the poor to get sufficient health care. As much as 41 million Americans, or 14.5%, have no health insurance at all (Anderson & Taylor, 2007, p. 368). For an ever increasing number of Americans, their only source of health care is through emergency room service, where “treatment is given only for specific critical ailments and rarely is there any follow-up care or comprehensive treatment” (Anderson & Taylor). In fact, a study found that “up to 15 percent of emergency room patients give up and leave before receiving care because of long waits – some stretching to an abysmal fifteen hours” (Anderson & Taylor, p. 372). Despite having more gross domestic product going to health care than any other industrialized country, the United States cannot seem to help those most in need (Anderson & Taylor). Sweeney (2002, para. 7) states that much of the research is funded by big corporations and implies that taxpayers would not be able to pay for it by asking if “taxpayers [are] ready to assume this multibillion-dollar burden.” The reality is, the government could accomplish the very same things with much less money, because it would not be getting done with reaping huge profits in mind. It you look at other industrialized nations, they provide health care to its citizens through government instead of through huge corporations. All of the industrialized countries, save the United States, provide universal health care with quality of care as good or better for half as much per capita (Anderson & Taylor, p. 374).

With all the power and influence that huge pharmaceutical companies hold, it is unlikely that the health care crisis will get any better. They have shown in countless instances that they care little about providing good products. The problem with these corporations is not just trying to make a profit – any business needs that to be viable – it is the blatant disregard for human lives and for providing good health care that is really disturbing. The huge corporations need to be held to account for their dirty tactics and more heavily regulated by the government before anyone can hope to see improvement in health care.

Links for more information:
-“The US Health Care Mess.” BNN. http://www.bloggernews.net/14679

-“The Affordability or Not of Illness – Affecting More As Health Insurance Increases.” BNN.

-“A Short History of health care.” Slate. http://www.slate.com/id/2161736/

-“Single-Payer: Good for Business.” The Nation. http://www.thenation.com/doc/20041115/mintz

Anderson, M.L. & Taylor, H.F. (2007). Sociology: The essentials (4th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.
Blum, W. (2000). Rogue state: A guide to the world’s only superpower (pp. 1-27). New York: Common Courage Press.
Carey, J. & Barrett, A. (2001, December 10). Drug prices: What’s fair? BusinessWeek, 61-
Clark, M.E. (n.d.). Science and values. In C. Muscatine & M. Griffith (Eds.), The Borzoi College
(7th ed., pp. 64-71). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Sweeney, P. (2002). Drug company gifts: A response. George Street Journal, 27. Retrieved
December 16, 2002 from here
Turner, S. J. (2002). Drug company gifts: Marketing technique poses ethical questions for some.
George Street Journal, 27. Retrieved December 16, 2002 from here
Nastya Petrovitch blogs at http://www.progressiveu.org/blog/candy7468.

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