Wednesday, February 15, 2006

No money, no life

Genentech is pricing its unique life-saving drugs well beyond the means of the vast majority of Americans, merely because it can:

“Until now, drug makers have typically defended high prices by noting the cost of developing new medicines. But executives at Genentech and its majority owner, Roche, are now using a separate argument—citing the inherent value of life-sustaining therapies. If society wants the benefits, they say, it must be ready to spend more for treatments…”

One of the treatments in question is the use of Genentech’s Avastin for lung or breast cancer, with a yearly price of nearly $100,000. What percentage of cancer patients are in an income bracket that could find $100,000 per year for just one of their medical costs? And how many insurance company formularies will include such a costly drug? Even when the drug is covered by insurance, the copays can run $20,000 per year, hardly affordable by most people who find themselves on disability insurance. It may be the “best” drug for many patients, but what does that matter if it’s kept out of reach of the vast majority of patients?

There is a basic problem with Genentech’s argument in any case. To begin with, Genentech is behaving as if they are the only ones with any rights to this (or any other Genentech) drug when in fact, vast amounts of the research leading to this drug discovery were taxpayer-funded, as was most of the education that was provided to their researchers.

Charging whatever the market will bear for lifesaving therapies violates the principles upon which the field of medicine is based, while pharmaceutical corporations still lay claim to their role as valuable medical participants. As a society, we have demanded that life be valued above the pursuit of profits, as in the case of hospital emergency rooms being mandated to provide lifesaving therapies even in the absence of a patient’s ability to pay.

The biotech industry has a real image problem at the moment, and it will hardly be helped by such greed-inspired pricing of their products. If the company’s intent is to only provide care to the wealthy, perhaps they should refund the tax dollars the rest of us have paid to enable their product development? They should also be denied any and all corporate tax breaks they may presently be receiving, and should repay any tax deferrals they received for the development of this and similarly-priced drugs.

The notion that companies such as Genentech and Roche are working for the good of society, or for the good of humanity, should be put to rest too; Genentech’s only intended customers are the wealthy, and the rest of us should just die quietly. After we pay the freight for their discoveries, that is.

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