It is a long accepted fact in the United States that drug companies are the most profitable business in the country – bringing in well over 640 billion dollars each year. It is also accepted, though not as widely spoken about, that the cost of researching and developing life-saving medications is very high. Oftentimes conversations about drug company earnings go without proper acknowledgement of this fact. And yet recently, new studies and the release of increasingly advanced medications has once again raised concerns that the price of drugs – especially those developed to ease the symptoms of prolonged diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s, and HIV – may be so high that Americans coping with the diseases will be denied access to the medications.
The most recent addition to this controversy is the release of new drugs to help slow the spread of prostate cancer. Though prostate cancer is often stopped early in its development, allowing for its removal before it can spread, later-caught cases can spread throughout the body, often in the form of bone cancer. New medications, however, can drastically reduce spreading of the cancer and thus increase life expectancy of men who are diagnosed. Unfortunately, because of the appeal of the drugs, their costs are astronomical – some costing about $93,000 for a course of the medication; some that can end up costing about $500,000 per person for multiple rounds and coupling with other medications. These costs terrify insurance carriers and might cause Medicaid and Medicare to deny access to the drugs all together.
So who is in the right here? Yes, medications take a ton of money to produce and the fact that the pharmaceutical industry is making such strides in developing life-saving and improving drugs is due a lot of praise. And yes, like every other industry, having ownership over a rare and specialized item means the companies have the ability to charge high amounts. But do they also have a moral obligation to grant access to the drugs? This has long been a debate with American pharmaceutical companies, once especially heated about whether they had the obligation to provide less expensive access to HIV medications to African and Asian countries who were not allowed to manufacture the drugs themselves because of copyright laws. When Obama’s national medical coverage comes into full effect, it will be interesting to see how much coverage it provides for these expensive medications. My guess, unfortunately, is that like the debate that Medicare and Medicaid is having over whether to offer access to the medications, so will the national healthcare system – turning the incredible medications into commodities only available to the very wealthy who can afford private insurance or out-of-pocket spending for the drugs.