“A crippling problem.” “A total epidemic.” “A problem like nobody understands.” These are the words President Trump used to describe the opioid epidemic ravaging the country during a White House listening session in March.
The percentage of people in the U.S. dying of drug overdoses has effectively quadrupled since 1999, and drug overdoses now rank as the leading cause of death for Americans under 50.
Drugs do exist to reverse opioid overdoses or treat long-term opioid addiction. But while opioids have become easier and easier to obtain through illicit markets and sellers on the dark web, a drug that could save countless lives has become increasingly out of reach.
Consider the addiction treatment drug, Suboxone. Patents and other exclusivities on the basic version of Suboxone expired some time ago, yet the price remains sky-high, and access problems persist. Oral film strips now cost over US$500 for a 30-day supply; even simple tablets cost a whopping $600 for a 30-day supply. The cost alone puts the medication out of reach for many.
For those who study the pharmaceutical industry, and witness how drug companies are able to play games that keep competition out and prices high. Lack of access to addiction treatment drugs like Suboxone can be traced, in part, to the soaring prices, access problems and anti-competitive conduct that has become business as usual in the pharmaceutical industry across the board.
Pharmaceutical companies have brought tremendous advances in medicine. some folks believe they should be adequately compensated for the enormous amount of time and resources needed to develop a new drug. Our intellectual property system is designed to do just that, rewarding companies that bring new drugs to market with a competition-free period — 20 years from the patent application date — during which they can recoup their profits.
After this defined period, generic versions of the drug are supposed to appear on pharmacy shelves, bringing down prices to levels that can be borne more easily by consumers and the health care market generally.
Brand-name companies, however, engage in myriad games to make sure theirs is the only version of the drug on pharmacy shelves, long after generics should have joined the ranks.
Martin Shkreli, the infamous pharmaceutical industry CEO responsible for hiking the cost of his company’s lifesaving drug from $13.50 to $750 overnight, once tweeted that “Every time a drug goes generic, I grieve.”