Newspaper article International New York Times

Don't Trade Away Our Health

Newspaper article International New York Times

Don't Trade Away Our Health

Article excerpt

The efforts to raise drug prices in the so-called Trans-Pacific Partnership take us in the wrong direction.

A secretive group met behind closed doors in New York this week. What they decided may lead to higher drug prices for you and hundreds of millions around the world.

Representatives from the United States and 11 other Pacific Rim countries convened to decide the future of their trade relations in the so-called Trans-Pacific Partnership (T.P.P.). Powerful companies appear to have been given influence over the proceedings, even as full access is withheld from many government officials from the partnership countries.

Among the topics negotiators have considered are some of the most contentious T.P.P. provisions -- those relating to intellectual property rights. And we're not talking just about music downloads and pirated DVDs. These rules could help big pharmaceutical companies maintain or increase their monopoly profits on brand-name drugs.

The secrecy of the T.P.P. negotiations makes them maddeningly opaque and hard to discuss. But we can get a pretty good idea of what's happening, based on documents obtained by WikiLeaks from past meetings (they began in 2010), what we know of American influence in other trade agreements, and what others and myself have gleaned from talking to negotiators.

Trade agreements are negotiated by the office of the United States Trade Representative, supposedly on behalf of the American people. Historically, though, the trade representative's office has aligned itself with corporate interests. If big pharmaceutical companies hold sway -- as the leaked documents indicate they do -- the T.P.P. could block cheaper generic drugs from the market. Big Pharma's profits would rise, at the expense of the health of patients and the budgets of consumers and governments.

There are two ways the office of the trade representative can use the T.P.P. to maintain or raise drug prices and profits.

The first is to restrict competition from generics. It's axiomatic that more competition means lower prices. When companies have to fight for customers, they end up cutting their prices. When a patent expires, any company can enter the market with a generic version of a drug. The differences in prices between brand-name and generic drugs are mind- and budget-blowing. Just the availability of generics drives prices down: In generics-friendly India, for example, Gilead Sciences, which makes an effective hepatitis-C drug, recently announced that it would sell the drug for a little more than 1 percent of the $84,000 it charges here.

That's why, since the United States opened up its domestic market to generics in 1984, they have grown from 19 percent of prescriptions to 86 percent, by some accounts saving the United States government, consumers and employers more than $100 billion a year. …

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