An interesting article by Dr. Marcia Angell in the New York Review of Books that I saw posted on World Health News. There is a lot of debate these days about how effective the FDA is in regulating the drug approval and monitoring process.
The concern centers around whether scientists at the FDA are impartial enough, especially given that many have financial relationships with the companies they oversee. Public opinion is turning against both the FDA and the pharmaceutical industry in the wake of recent high-profile recalls like Vioxx and Bextra.
While the consistent, and often impressive, profitability of the pharmaceutical industry certainly suggests that these companies are recovering more than the cost of R&D in the prices of the drugs and devices they manufacture, it is hard for me to come down on them for making money. What's wrong with making a profit?
On the other hand, we do need to care for those unable to afford treatment. I think we can go a long way towards accomplishing this if we reform how the government purchases drugs from the industry. Medicare, for instance, cannot use its purchasing power to bargain for lower rates like other countries do. This type of practice runs counter to free market price setting and artificially inflates prices.
If Medicare were free to bargain for better prices, then we would see drugs costs more in line with what other countries pay. While this may cut down on the amount of profit pharmaceutical companies receive, I'd find it hard to believe that it would make them unprofitable.
Of course, the industry has one of the most powerful lobbies in the country and likely has no intention of sending their golden goose to slaughter. As long as they can market directly to patients and maintain the current Medicare payment system, their corner offices with views are not likely in any danger.
In our zeal to reform the industry, however, we must be careful not to stifle it. The pharmaceutical industry remains a vital source of funding for research studies and the consequent medical breakthroughs. A balance between the profit motive and public health needs must be struck in a way that rewards innovation while not sacrificing the health of those most in need.