A humanitarian crisis is unfolding in one of the world’s richest countriesby Fiona Conner / May 14, 2018 / Leave a comment
The high cost of medicine is killing Americans. More than a quarter struggle to pay their medical bills, making health care costs the leading cause cited when declaring personal bankruptcy—yet the current administration would like to see the rest of the world pay more for drugs.
On 7th May, a grieving mother attempted to highlight the issue of America’s soaring insulin prices at the annual shareholder meeting of pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly. In June 2017, Nicole Smith-Holt’s 26-year-old son Alec, who had type 1 diabetes, was found dead as a result of trying to ration insulin. Having aged out of his mother’s health insurance the month before, he could no longer afford the cost of the medicine that was keeping him alive.
Insulin appears on the Model List of Essential Medicines compiled by the World Health Organisation (WHO), which details the medications deemed most effective, safe and important in any health system. Without access to insulin, people with type 1 diabetes will die, most likely in a matter of days.
Alec’s story is far from unique. A recent survey found one in four American respondents with type 1 diabetes had resorted to skipping insulin doses due to the cost. A quick search of GoFundMe will throw up thousands of fundraisers for insulin in America, and with an over the counter cost of around $1,300 for a month’s supply for an American without health insurance, it’s easy to see why.
It is straightforward to understand why people might struggle to access affordable medicine in a developing nation—but why is such a humanitarian tragedy unfolding in one of the world’s richest countries? The short answer is that America’s dysfunctional healthcare provision, with its opaque system of health insurance and drug pricing, is a goldmine for many of the key players.
The worldwide market for pharmaceuticals is expected to reach $1.12 trillion by 2022 and most pharma companies operate on a profit margin of around 20 per cent; a level comparable to banking. Some make much more—Pfizer, the largest US pharma company, made a staggering 42 per cent profit margin in 2013. With such huge sums of money being made, it seems reasonable to question how the industry is working for the public good. The WHO has highlighted “an inherent conflict of interest between the legitimate business goals of manufacturers and the social, medical…