America’s broken pharmaceutical system is now spilling over the border to affect the lives of citizens of other countries as well. U.S.-based drug company Alexion Pharmaceuticals has reportedly filed a lawsuit against the Canadian government because the life-saving drug they had hoped to sell for $700,000 per 12 month treatment has been questioned by the country’s medicine review board as – in what may be the understatement of the century – “excessive.”
Canada’s Patented Medicine Prices Review Board notes that the drug Soliris, which is used to treat several types of rare blood diseases by preventing the body’s immune system from incorrectly attacking tissue and organs, is massively expensive, and Alexion has even upped the price specifically in Canada by around $30,000. Since the drug is a treatment and not a cure, patients typically require using the drug for the rest of their lives. That’s $700,000 per year for life.
Even in Canada, which is home to a robust healthcare system, the price of Soliris is so expensive that many provinces will not or cannot cover the cost, leaving residents who aren’t able to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars per year on a single drug treatment (and that would be everyone but, perhaps, Bill Gates) forced to go without.
Alexion defended its drug by saying essentially, “We can do whatever we want and trying to keep costs down infringes on our right to make massive profits.” They filed a lawsuit demanding Canada allow them to sell the drug for the $700,000 they initially asked for.
Thankfully, it doesn’t appear that Canada is backing down. The review board continues to challenge the cost of Soliris and will likely seek to force Alexion to reimburse Ottawa for “overpayments” for briefly footing the bill for Alexion’s drug-based highway robbery.
Ironically, this entire problem could have been prevented if Congress had allowed President Obama to realize his plan to set up America’s very own medicine cost review board. Similar to that of Canada’s, the review board would be tasked with holding drug companies like Alexion accountable for the prices they charge for their pharmaceuticals. The basic question that would need to be answered would be “Can you justify the cost of this drug?”
As The New York Times explained in May:
Mr. Obama has asked Congress to let Medicare officials negotiate prices with drug manufacturers, a practice forbidden by current law that may be hard to change with the antiregulatory mood among Republicans. And several states are considering bills that would require drug companies to justify their prices to public agencies. It is the least the states can do to bring costs to levels that patients, hospitals and government programs can afford.
Instead, Republicans in Congress oversaw the plans destruction, claiming a review board that held drug companies accountable would violate the pharmaceutical industry’s right to free enterprise.
Alexion is what “free enterprise” looks like. As does the much-talked about case of a company called Turing Pharmaceuticals of New York that hiked the cost of life-saving cancer medication by 5,000 percent overnight so it could make a fast buck. These aren’t exceptions, they are the rule. In fact, drug companies are quickly discovering that they can pretty much charge whatever they want for drugs – even ones that have been around for half a century – and there is little consumers can do about it unless they want to suffer without.
It’s no wonder that stories like that of Turing’s price hike or Alexion’s lawsuit in Canada are greeted without bafflement by citizens of other countries. When CBC News asked a health law professor from the University of Ottawa what he thought of Alexion’s actions, the clearly shocked man reportedly said, “This is the single greatest threat to pricing of drugs in Canada ever.”
In America, it’s just another day.