Bushs drug policies are his Achilles heel

The national media would do well to stop its collaboration with the Bush administration’s attempt to sidetrack the national election debate away from issues that are of economic and political importance to people in the U.S.: jobs, housing, Medicaid/welfare, education, and, of course, world peace and true security.

In the health care field, the issue that most embarrasses the Bush administration — and the problem that most sharply agitates the majority of the people — is the price of prescription drugs. People’s rage on this issue is off the charts.

The Bush Medicare prescription drug plan was a fiasco. This was supposed to be the domestic issue upon which Bush was going to ride into the White House. The AARP succumbed to that way of thinking and endorsed the plan. They thought they had bet on the winning horse. But no sooner did that horse race end, with a shameful congressional vote to pass the bill, than people revolted against it.

The revolt was led by the Association of Retired Americans, the AFL-CIO retirees organization. And, even when the initial prescription drug benefit recently kicked in, there were very few takers. Practically, only those seniors already enrolled in HMOs became part of that new benefit system. And even they were angry with the benefit. (See Edward McKinney’s “The Bush Medicare Nightmare,” in the August 2004 issue of Political Affairs for a complete description.)

The consolidation of the power of the prescription drug lobby was at its highest when, a few years ago, it was able to convince the leadership of the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) to drop its editor at the time, Dr. Marcia Angell, in favor of an editorial leadership more sympathetic to the drug industry goals.

Under Dr. Angell, the NEJM had, for a number of years, provided medical and public health leaders with the valued ideas of people like Dr. Thomas Bodenheimer, a physician who supports public medical governance of the medical and public health system. Bodenheimer, along with other public health leaders, wrote extensive articles for the NEJM. Now that journal limits itself to the narrowest of clinical medical and scientific issues. Policy editorials and articles that would question the prescription drug industry were dropped.

In the Aug. 9 issue of the Los Angeles Times, Dr. Angell shows why she was a threat to this powerful industry — an industry known for hefty campaign contributions to determine election results and using big advertising dollars to keep medical journals afloat and in line.

In answer to the key question concerning the claim by drug monopolies that they need astronomical profits in order for their research and development programs to succeed, Dr. Angell said: “In 2002, the biggest drug companies spent only about 14 percent of sales on research and development and spent 31 percent on what most of them call marketing and administration. They consistently make more in profits than they spend on R&D. And, their profits are immense.

“In 2002,” she continued, “the combined profits of the 10 drug companies in the Fortune 500 were $35.9 billion. That’s more than the profits for all the other 490 businesses put together, if you subtract losses from gains.”

It is facts like these that the Bush administration, its political allies, and its corporate backers (especially the drug companies) want to keep hidden and out of the public debate.

The drug policies of the Bush administration, if they are widely understood for what they truly are, have the potential of galvanizing the electorate to oust Bush and congressional Republicans from political power. No task is more urgent for our people’s — and the world’s — future.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org.