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Drug prices reveal the 'racket' of big pharma

Daniel R. Hoffman, president of Pharmaceutical Business Research Associates in Glenmoore, wrote this for the checkup blog on and

Daniel R. Hoffman, president of Pharmaceutical Business Research Associates in Glenmoore, wrote this for the "Check Up" blog.

Last month, the online company compared prices on 15 of the top-selling brand-name medications made in the United States. It found U.S. consumers could save an average of 76 percent on such domestic products by buying them from verified international pharmacies rather than in this country. Amazingly, three of the brands - Merck's Singulair, AstraZeneca's Pulmicort, and Mission Pharmacal's Urocrit-K - are sold here as generics, yet the brand prices abroad were still lower.

According to a Commonwealth Fund study cited by, higher U.S. prices take their toll because, in 2012, 50 million Americans failed to fill their prescriptions due to costs. That number included more than one in five of people with insurance.

Of course, the difficulties many Americans face in obtaining care are not confined to prescription drugs. The Commonwealth Fund study found that nearly half of U.S. adults between 19 and 64 (84 million people) did not have insurance for all of 2012 or were underinsured, and that two out of five adults reported problems paying medical bills or were paying off medical debt.

As more Americans begin getting coverage under the Affordable Care Act, the ranks of the uninsured/underinsured and those in medical debt will decline. These better policies, in the vast majority of cases, will contain more generous prescription drug benefits than the previous junk policies.

But the better benefits related to drug and other costs with policies under Obamacare may prove short-lived. That is because carriers will increasingly move to co-insurance plans and away from those offering defined benefits. If someone develops a condition such as rheumatoid arthritis, MS, ulcerative colitis, or cancer, where a year's medication costs between $50,000 and $250,000, the need to pay 30 percent of that will again put treatment out of reach for many people.

That is why Maine passed legislation with bipartisan support that allows residents there to buy medications from a Canadian broker via licensed retail pharmacies in the U.K. and Commonwealth countries such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

Naturally, pharma trade groups and U.S. pharmacists have sued Maine, fearing the initiative will catch on. So, affordable drug prices be damned, pharma and U.S. drug retailers want the courts to protect their racket.

None of this should be a surprise. When industries regularly produce new products customers consider good values they want to buy, there is little need for economic hypocrisy. But pharma hasn't been making such products for several years. As marketing and sales demonstrate their declining ability to sell marginally different, me-too brands, the leprous hands of finance, accounting, and lawyers increase control over pharma's operations.

That's not the pharmaceutical industry that originally attracted many of us.