The Salt Lake Tribune
April 4, 2016
High costs of hepatitis medicine make a good case for universal Medicare
Those who continue to argue that there is a "free market solution" to the unconscionable costs and gaps in the American health care system have to explain away the train wreck surrounding new cures for hepatitis C.
The good news is that there is a cure for hepatitis C, a blood disease that can lead to a slow and painful death as it destroys a victim's liver. In fact, now there are a few. Gilead Sciences markets concoctions called Sovaldi and Harvoni. Janssen Research offers a drug called Olysio.
The bad news is that the cost of the full treatment regimen for a single patient can run from $83,000 to $189,000. That, obviously, is well beyond the reach of nearly every household and understandably enough to scare off both private insurance carriers and government-funded Medicaid.
The worse news is that, because the United States clings to the idea that wellness is a commodity subject to rational market forces, nobody is trying to limit these awful costs.
The drug companies charge so much for these medications for one reason: Because they can.
Functioning free markets do not — and never will — exist in health care because the sellers so often hold all the cards.
Civilized nations — a term that excludes the United States when discussing health care — either regulate the prices of drugs or use their concentrated purchasing power to negotiate a reasonable cost.
Drug makers argue that even the staggering cost of Sovaldi or related drugs is a bargain compared to avoided costs of more treatment, surgeries, disability, early death, etc.
It is notable that single-payer systems, such as in the United Kingdom, have done the math and agreed to pay high — though less than in the U.S. — prices for these drugs. That's because, in those nations, the single payer does, indeed, come out ahead by paying a lot now but saving many multiples of that later.
In other words, the case made by the drug companies for allowing them to charge such high prices is also an argument for Medicare for all.
Comment by Don McCanne
If there is any good in the fact that drug companies are gouging patients and payers it is that the citizenry may finally awaken to the fact that we need the government involved to straighten out this crisis, and, by extension, that we can finally get past the anti-government hangup preventing us from enacting a single payer system. We can thank the editors of The Salt Lake Tribune for reminding us that the solution we need is a single payer Medicare for all.