The business of health care

Hold drug companies accountable

We have finished the elections and many new leaders will take charge in January. Now it’s time to remember that we must care for the good of all Americans. And this means holding corporations to the same ethical standards to which we hold human beings.

Late last summer, news media reported on the drug company Mylan, makers of the Epipen, raising costs at an astronomical rates. However, Mylan was not alone. Other companies have also been raising prices on drugs they produce.

A U.S. House of Representatives report (2014 Healthcare Supply Chain Association) found that 10 generic drugs had prices raised in one year, ranging from 388 percent to 8,281 percent. These were for drugs such as digoxin (884 percent), a heart medication discovered by an 18th century physician, and hydrocholorothiazide (420 percent), a diuretic used for high blood pressure since 1959.

Drug companies traditionally charge high rates for new drugs, those still under patents, to recoup costs of research and development. It’s legitimate business practice. However, rates seen with EpiPens (up 400 percent), along with moves like Turing Pharmaceuticals’ which raised the cost of its anti-cancer drug, Daraprim, from $13.50 to $750 in 2015, are another story.

All this takes place as insurance companies are raising deductibles and copays, so people who paid $100 to $500 in annual out-of-pocket expenses a couple of years ago now pay five to ten times more. The same was true with premiums under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which were slated to go up an average of 25 percent next year.

With the change in government leadership, what will happen to insurance costs for people covered by ACA? President-elect Donald Trump has promised to replace, not repeal, ACA. But will his new plan mean lower insurance and drug costs? Or will these continue to rise? Will any restraints be placed on them?

Dr. Purvi Parikh, an allergist and immunologist at NYU Langone Medical Center spoke to CNN in August about the EpiPen price increase. Dr. Parikh said, “Health insurance plans have now put more and more responsibility on the patient. It’s definitely unfortunate because it’s a necessary lifesaving medication. It’s not really a luxury.”

The same is true with many other drugs.

In April, Pope Francis addressed the International Conference on the Progress of Regenerative Medicine. Citing his teaching, Evangelii Gaudium, the pope said he had “strongly emphasized … the need to oppose ‘an economy of exclusion and inequality’ (53) that victimizes people when the mechanism of profit prevails over the value of human life.”

Back in February 2013, the U.S. bishops wrote about access to health care. They said, “Catholic tradition affirms that health care is a basic right flowing from the sanctity and dignity of human life. … Health care policy must protect human life and dignity, not threaten them, especially for the most voiceless and vulnerable.”

One might argue that corporations do not have the same ethical obligations that human persons do. However, in U.S. legal tradition, dating back to the 14th Amendment’s adoption in 1868, corporations have legally been “corporate persons.”

If corporations are legal persons, with many, if not all, the privileges that human persons enjoy, they should be held to human ethical standards. This means that profit should not be their only goal. Yes, many companies exhibit ethical concern through contributions to charities, but let’s challenge them to not stop there.

If we are truly going to make America great again, and work together instead of divisively, we need to balance the mechanism of profit with the value of human life. That may not be a natural instinct of the business model, but it needs to be the instinct of the future of a healthy America.