International trade negotiations, especially their more technical aspects, seem far removed from health care and health policy, and unrelated to health care dysfunction. However, it seems that such trade negotiations have become a back door route to affect health policy, especially national efforts to regulate health care intended to improve patients' and the public's health.
We recently discussed how current multinational trade negotiations seem to be more about changing regulation in favor of big corporations than broadly advancing trade. Some of the effects of the proposed trade pacts could have bad effects on patients' and the public's health, particularly by allowing corporations to challenge particular countries' public health policies outside of these countries' judicial systems, in kangarooish courts seemingly designed to favor corporate interests. Also, the trade pacts' focus on intellectual property could lead to longer patent protection on drugs, biologics, and devices, raising health care costs. However, attempts to figure out how proposed trade agreements could affect health care and public health were hindered by the secrecy surrounding the negotiations.
"Procedural Fairness" for Pharmaceutical Companies, not You and Me
Earlier in June, 2015, a part of the current draft of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) appeared on Wikileaks, revealing yet another set of concerns about how the agreement could affect health care. It was entitled "Annex on Transparency and Procedural Fairness for Pharmaceutical Products and Medical Devices," and hence was specifically about health care.
The bulk of the annex seemed to be about improving the treatment of drug, device and biotechnology companies by national agencies that make decisions about payments for their products. The annex apparently proposed establishing the companies' rights to rapid reviews, access to applicable procedures and guidelines, access to written decisions, company appeals of the agencies' decisions, and protection of corporate confidential information. On the other hand, there was nothing I could see in the annex about the rights of, say, patients or health care professionals.
We have noted the concern that international trade agreements may make government regulation subject to corporate appeal in "investor-state dispute settlement" (ISDS) processes, essentially international quasi-courts that are not subject to national judicial systems, may not provide for any input by parties other than governments and corporations (that is, by, for example citizens, patients or health professionals), and may not allow appeal. Thus, by specifically incorporating new protections for corporations seeking favorable payments for their new products from national agencies, the annex could make it possible for the corporations to appeal to ISDS, going around national court systems. As reported in the Huffington Post,
According to an analysis of the leaked document by Jane Kelsey, a law professor at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, these rules are enough to expose national health authorities to legal challenges under TPP’s investor-state dispute settlement process, or ISDS. ISDS empowers companies to challenge countries’ domestic laws before a tribunal of international judges if they believe the laws unfairly limit investment. The tribunals have the power to impose significant fines on countries if their laws are found responsible for the investment hardship in question. While pharmaceutical companies could not challenge national health programs’ policies through ISDS, their grievances would be eligible for ISDS if the companies claimed the policies hindered investment.
In fact, the Huffington Post article noted suspicions that the US Trade Representative (USTR) has been negotiating on behalf of big US drug, device and biotechnology companies to target price regulations in Australia and New Zealand,
Among the United States’ TPP negotiating partners, pharmaceutical provisions have faced the greatest opposition from Australia and New Zealand, which have national health authorities that provide prescription drugs to their citizens at heavily discounted rates. The U.S. Trade Representative and U.S. pharmaceutical companies have targeted the cost containment measures in those countries’ prescription drug programs for years. Pharmaceutical companies also claim that New Zealand’s drug approval process is opaque and difficult to navigate.Why Explicitly Include the US Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS)?
However, anyone in the US who thinks that all the burden from the trade pact is only on other countries, particularly those down under, should think again. The draft trade pact annex also seemed designed to prevent any future attempts by the US government to control drug and device costs, especially for the US Medicare program, even though the current US President has proposed such attempts.
Note that when the US program was extended to cover drugs, the legislation specifically forbade the government from negotiating prices, a provision that seemed more about protecting corporate revenues than the federal budget. So, as reported by the New York Times,
The newly leaked annex, dated Dec. 17, 2014, lists Medicare and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services as falling under its strictures.
The USTR pooh poohed any concerns about that,
Officials at the United States trade representative’s office, while declining to comment on a leak they would not acknowledge, said rules in the Pacific accord would have no impact on the United States because Medicare already adhered to them. The trade representative’s office helped develop the proposals.'Already, transparency and procedural fairness are integral parts of the U.S. legal system and as such are principles reflected in U.S. trade agreements,' the representative’s office said in a statement.
Maybe preventing any government negotiation about, much less control of drug and device prices may be part of what the USTR called "procedural fairness." In any case, if the US, and specifically CMS are doing so well, why bother giving this trade pact jurisdiction over them, unless to prevent any uppity future US government from daring to negotiate with the pharmaceutical industry?
The Huffington Post noted that
In an earlier statement, [Director of Public Citizen's Global Access to Medicine Project Peter] Maybarduk expressed concern that the rules would 'limit Congress’ ability to enact policy reforms that would reduce prescription drug costs for Americans –- and might even open to challenge aspects of our health care system today.'
He expanded on that in a commentary for The Hill,
Earlier this week, WikiLeaks published the draft TPP 'Annex' on healthcare technologies. In the five-page document, the U.S. government commits Medicare to rules and procedures that would make it difficult — if not impossible — to implement a national formulary that would provide leverage for proposed negotiations with drugmakers under Medicare Part D.
Medicare costs are expected to more than double from $77 billion in 2015 to about $174 billion in the next decade. In February, the president called for giving Medicare the power to negotiate prices with drug manufacturers to ameliorate this cost burden. Americans support giving Medicare negotiating power by wide margins and across party lines.
Negotiations are most effective if the U.S. government has leverage. Experts suggest that key leverage in Medicare negotiations should come from developing a national drug formulary — a list of drugs that Medicare would cover. A formulary would stimulate competition, reduce prices and lead to healthier outcomes for patients and the healthcare system.
But the leaked TPP 'Annex' shows that the pact would impose procedural requirements on formulary decisions, exact significant administrative costs and open up the drug review process to increased corporate influence. Medicare would have to live by these rules. The result could be a toothless negotiator, and a formulary filled with expensive drugs that have questionable public health benefits, if any.
So why did the US Trade Representative acquiesce to, if not actively promote, a trade pact that would limit the ability of the US government, specifically, CMS to try to put a damper on the ever rising health care prices that threaten to bankrupt individuals and maybe eventually the Medicare program itself? And why, incidentally did it do so when this appeared to contradict the current US President's own stated goal to have Medicare negotiate the prices it pays for drugs? (And why, incidentally, did it promote a pact that would give international tribunals jurisdiction over US government actions when that may be unconstitutional according to an increasing number of experts?)
The best speculation we offered before was that the USTR has been "captured" by industry, in part through the conflicts of interest generated by multiple passages through the revolving door by current and former USTR personnel.
At the moment, the TPP has stalled again in the US Congress. However, do not underestimate the ability of its proponents to get it moving again. The now intermittent drip of secrets from the ongoing trade negotiations showing how little they have to do with trade, and how much they have to do with advancing corporate interests suggest the need for much more vigilance in defense of patients' and the public's health.
Meanwhile, I repeat again that we need to do a lot more to undo regulatory capture that affects health care, and stop the incessantly spinning revolving door. Attempts to turn government toward private gain and away from being of the people, by the people, and for the people have no doubt been going on since the beginning of government (and since the Constitution was signed, in the case of the US). However, true health care reform would require curtailing the severe sorts of conflicts of interest created by the revolving door.
Real heath care reform would require multiyear cooling off periods before someone who worked in the commercial world can get a job in a government whose work has direct effect on his or her previous employer or industry sector, and before someone who worked in government whose work had direct effect on a particular economic sector can accept a job for a company in that sector.