Thursday, October 06, 2011

Enabled by the Revolving Door, Corporatistic US Trade Policy Seems to Put US Drug Companies Ahead of Global Public Health

We just discussed how leaders of big health care corporations with histories of ethical and legal missteps want to export our supposedly "wonderful technology, wonderful approaches" to the rest of the world.  A story on the Huffington Post showed how big health care corporations, partnering with the US government, have already been doing that with not very pretty results.  The article discussed two cases, connected by a single person who transited the revolving door from government to the pharmaceutical industry and then back to government.

The US Dispute with Brazil, on Behalf of Merck and Pfizer, About HIV Drugs

When [William] Daley was commerce secretary in the later years of the Clinton administration, Brazil rankled U.S. drug companies by opting to provide its citizens with a generic version of another HIV drug. Like Thailand, Brazil declared a public health emergency in an effort to lower the cost of treating roughly a half-million HIV infections. The U.S. government responded by sending Daley to Brazil with executives from U.S. pharmaceutical giants Merck & Co. and Pfizer to try to pressure the Brazilian government into reversing its decision.
Thus the US government appeared to be putting the revenues of US corporations ahead of the public health, at least in Brazil.
Daley soon made the transition to the private sector:
In a speech at Johns Hopkins University before leaving for Brazil, Daley encouraged students to enter the revolving door between big business and public policy-making. 'Let me say this: As one of the only members of the president's Cabinet to come from business, it's good when you mix both government and business in your careers,' he said. 'It makes better public servants, and it makes better businesspeople.'

It has certainly been good for Daley's career. His effort to twist arms in Brazil failed, but drug companies apparently took note. It was after leaving the Clinton administration that Daley was hired by Abbott, where he raked in more than $1.3 million as a board member from 2004 to 2010, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings. Over the same period, he served on Boeing's board and was a top lobbyist for JPMorgan Chase.
Abbot's Dispute, Supported by the US Government, with Thailand About Kaletra

Soon Abbot was involved in a similar dispute.

The background is:
[HIV drug] Kaletra costs more than $10,000 a year for a patient living in the United States, a price that is reflective of the highly protective American patent system. The U.S. is the only country that grants long-term monopolies on life-saving medicine without regulating the price of monopolized drugs.

In addition
In countries that negotiate with companies on drug prices, the cost of medicine is often far lower. But though American pharmaceutical companies do supply drugs to developing nations at rates below those charged in the U.S., those discounted prices are still too high for many poor or hard-hit nations to afford.

'In many developing countries, it's a death sentence,'said Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, referring to high drug prices.

The core of the dispute:
In 2007 negotiations with the Thai government, Abbott Labs wouldn't budge below a price of $2,200 per person, per year for Kaletra. At the time, Thailand was classified as a 'lower-middle income' country by the World Bank -- the second lowest of four categories. With more than a half-million citizens living with HIV, Thailand considered that price beyond its budgetary capacity. So it declared a public health emergency and began importing a vastly cheaper generic version of Kaletra from India.

And then, by international trade standards, all hell broke loose.

'When countries declare the health emergency, they face a huge backlash, particularly from the USTR [US Trade Representative] and the drug companies,'said Tim Boyd, policy research coordinator with the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, a U.S. nonprofit dedicated to eradicating HIV.

Abbott responded by withdrawing pending applications to register drugs in Thailand, cutting its citizens off from other medications. The move was unprecedented: Never before had an American drug company attempted to punish a country during drug price negotiations by cutting off the supply of other medicines.

At the time, Brook Baker, a law professor at Northeastern University and a member of the board at the Health Global Access Project, called the move a 'ruly appalling example of corporate hubris'that 'irectly violates any conceivable norm of corporate responsibility.'

At that time, the US government went along with Abbott:
As for the USTR, it seemed to support the company, placing Thailand on its 'Priority Watch List 'of nations that do not respect U.S. intellectual property rights. 'In late 2006 and early 2007, there were further indications of a weakening of respect for patents, as the Thai Government announced decisions to issue compulsory licenses for several patented pharmaceutical products,' wrote the agency in its report announcing that Thailand had been added to the priority list.

Although the USTR blacklist is little known domestically, it is a major economic indicator abroad and can affect a country's ability to import everything from software to DVDs to automobiles. Thailand's new status as an international rogue sparked concern among the country's economic policy officials and corporate leaders. And 35 members of Congress wrote to the USTR to protest Thailand's blacklisting, noting, 'The move is being interpreted in the public health community as a warning and a threat to other countries.'

Note that:
Abbott Labs declined to detail Daley's involvement in the Thailand episode, but as a member of the board, he should have been well informed about the strategy.

US Government Pressure to Protect Drug Companies' Patents

William Daley has transitioned the revolving door again in the other direction:
As commerce secretary under Bill Clinton, William Daley worked with U.S. pharmaceutical giants to curb the use of cheaper generic drugs abroad. As a board member for Abbott Laboratories, he had a front-row seat on a brutal clash between a major drug company and a developing nation over access to life-saving medication. And as White House chief of staff today, Daley has President Barack Obama’s ear.

In his new government job,
Add up Daley’s power and experience, and experts who follow public health policy suspect his influence in the U.S. stance in negotiations over a major international trade deal -- a stance with hugely profitable implications for giant American drugmakers.

The United States is in talks with eight other Pacific nations to establish the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which the administration hopes will serve as a template for other trade pacts. According to leaked documents from the negotiations, the Obama administration is using the deal to push hard-line intellectual property standards that could drive up medicine prices overseas, boosting the bottom line for U.S. drugmakers like Abbott Labs at the expense of public health.

Public health advocates are worried. 'If the point of the trade policy is not just to protect the interests of our companies, but the public health benefit and burden of research, then [the United States] is doing this all wrong,' said James Love, director of Knowledge Ecology International, a nonprofit that focuses on how patent laws affect the poor.

A White House spokesman said only that the negotiations -- which are being conducted behind closed doors with input from corporate lobbyists -- are being 'ably led' by the United States Trade Representative (USTR) and that Daley is 'not directing or participating in those negotiations.'

Note that the USTR leadership includes other travelers through the revolving door:
Daley's personal history with drug access is not unique among top-tier government officials with trade responsibilities. McCoy lobbied on intellectual property issues at the influential D.C. law firm Covington & Burling before moving to the USTR in 2006. His top deputy, Kira Alvarez, was a lobbyist for drugmaker Eli Lilly before joining the agency.


Per Zach Carter, the author of the Huffington Post article:
Daley, who previously lobbied for JPMorgan Chase, is a prominent examplar of a bipartisan phenomenon in American government in which corporate insiders, and the profit-driven perspective of the boardroom, have come to dominate formal and informal debate over public policy.

Another way to describe this is corporatism. The corporatism in this case is partly enabled by the continuation of the revolving door, the free transit of individuals from leadership positions in top corporations and in government. The government and big corporations have teamed up to produce solutions that may seem beneficial to the people making the decisions, and may benefit their long term career strategies, but may not be good for the US public, for patients' and the public's health in this case, and for the ability of the country to conduct foreign policy based on some ethical and moral principles.

By the way, note that combined with other cases we have discussed, this shows that the revolving door pheonomenon, and other aspects corporatism affecting health care are not linked with any one political party.

There is no evidence that any of these players, including Daley, have done anything illegal or explicitly corrupt during the Trans-Pacific trade negotiations. But public health doesn’t seem to be their first priority.

'The real concern is that the U.S. is using its international power and prestige to force poor countries to enforce our intellectual property standards, and the result of that is that access to medicine is denied and people are dying,' said Joseph Stiglitz.
Until we dispel the fog of corporatism that has spread over the government that was once supposed to be of the people, by the people, and for the people, expect no real health care reform, and expect continuing rising costs, declining access, and worsening patient care. Obviously, true health care reform would start with the government and its officials putting patients' and the public's health first, way ahead of the financial comfort of corporate leaders.

1 comment:

Afraid said...

When we place our trust in systems we often forget that systems are run by people. People easily project goodness onto their activities, even obviously counterproductive actions, because they want to feel good about themselves.

So no matter what the system, privatized healthcare or socialized medicine, the system will twist up until it becomes a parody of itself.

The trick I think is to change the system when it becomes a problem. So the optimal solution isn't private medicine or public medicine, it is oscillating between the two effectively to counter the entrenchment of interests.

So those countries with commercial medicine would be best served by changing to a public system and those with socialized medicine would probably be well served by introducing some competition.

So one type system is not better, it’s whichever system has become entrenched is bad.

Likely the citizenry knows this intrinsically.