How Far Should the Business of Medicine Go?

Imagine being a cancer patient with a life-threatening brain tumor. You are taking a chemotherapy drug that has no generic alternative. That is, until the manufacturer pulls out of the Medicare program. Now you either have to pay $1,000 per dose or go without.

Sound crazy? It is. But it is also reality. NextSource Biotechnology acquired the rights to manufacture Gleostine some eight years ago. They immediately began raising the price, according to a recent Wall Street Journal piece. They recently pulled out of Medicare because they would rather charge full price than acquiesce to Medicare’s discount mandates.

This begs an obvious question: how far should the business of medicine go? There is no doubt that our system being a private-sector system has led to tremendous advancements over the years. The ability to make money in medicine is what prompts companies to innovate. But there comes a point when capitalism reaches absurdity. We may have reached that point with Gleostine.

With Freedom Comes Responsibility

We do not know how much it costs to manufacture a single dose of Gleostine. However, given the fact that its manufacturer has survived all these years making the drug available through Medicare at discounted prices pretty much confirms it doesn’t cost $1000 per pill.

NextSource has the freedom to charge whatever it wants to in a free and open market. But with freedom comes responsibility. Just because they can charge that much doesn’t mean they should. It also doesn’t mean that they are not violating ethical standards by dropping out of Medicare.

Stepping aside from NextSource and Gleostine for just one second, there is something wrong with our system when consumers can buy cheaper drugs on the Canada Pharmacy website as opposed to going to their corner pharmacy. The fact that prescription medications are cheaper at foreign pharmacies – in a country with socialized medicine, no less – clearly indicates that our system has crossed the line.

More Than a Business

Prescription drugs are a business in this country. That’s fine. They should be. But the prescription medication equation neither starts nor ends with business. There is more to it when you are talking about drugs that could potentially save lives.

By pulling out of Medicare and forcing cancer patients to pay for unaffordable drugs out-of-pocket, pharmaceutical companies are essentially deciding who gets treatment and who doesn’t. How is that any different than socialized medicine sending old people home to die because it’s not financially viable to treat them? It isn’t any different. It is a shameful exercise no matter what form it takes.

From this writer’s perspective, pharmaceutical companies have an added responsibility to be ethical about what they do. If profit at the expense of all else is your only motive for starting a pharmaceutical company, forget it. Go find another industry to get involved in. When you’re talking pharmaceuticals, you’re talking about human lives. They cannot be quantified on a P&L statement.

Federal Regulations Are No Excuse

Pharmaceutical companies do have a valid complaint in that federal regulations make developing new drugs and medical devices extremely expensive. It can now take more than a decade and billions of dollars to develop a new therapy. That is still no excuse for gouging customers.

Pharmaceutical companies concerned about federal regulations should concentrate their efforts on changing those regulations. They should be working on rallying the public to support their cause. They should work on electing politicians willing to force the FDA to change.

The one thing they shouldn’t be doing is making their drugs unaffordable. That only gives no hope to desperate people who cannot afford to pay for their prescriptions.