Drug Costs

Don’t Believe Everything You Read – Or See On TV

February 22, 2019 8:49 am

If you’re looking for balanced reporting about healthcare costs, avoid TV news.

Earlier this week, NBC News ran a two-minute segment on Humira, a wildly effective drug manufactured by AbbVie that is used to treat Crohn’s disease. The story was representative of how much of the media has covered the debate around drug prices: one-sided, with pharmaceutical companies cast as the villain.


This piece followed a similarly slanted NBC News profile of Laura and John Arnold that cast the hedge fund billionaire and his wife as heroes for waging a crusade against pharmaceutical industry “oppression.” (That piece conveniently ignored their stealthy efforts to influence the debate by funding dubious research, nonprofits tied to the insurance industry, and a political front group that has accused industry executives of wanting to let children die.)


The media has always anointed heroes and crucified its self-selected villains. It’s lazy, and we’d like to think most viewers see through these caricatures. However, these good-vs.-bad plotlines are particularly dangerous in public-policy debates. By picking sides, media outlets promote outcomes that could have dire impacts on those affected. The Arnolds have used these lazy tropes to their advantage, spoon-feeding reporters “research” that ignores basic facts about the market, all with the goal of enacting policies that will limit patients’ access to existing treatments and stymie the development of future breakthroughs.


The latest NBC piece discussed how the U.S. patent system affects the price of the medication, quoting lawyer Tahir Amin, who for years has been peddling the same false arguments about the patent system. Amin is the co-founder of I-MAK, a group that has received millions of dollars from the Arnolds to challenge pharmaceutical industry patents. In his interview with NBC, he suggests that companies secure multiple patents to keep competitors out of the market. The truth is that more than three-quarters of patents are filed before the drug in question ever received FDA approval.  In other words, these are not “new patents on old drugs,” but rather old patents on old drugs. Or, in other instances, valuable improvements on existing treatments.


Additionally, Amin and other critics appear blind to the fact that generics account for an ever-increasing share of all drugs dispensed in the U.S., a trend the White House and Trump administration have frequently cited as generic approvals go up and drug prices go down.


In the most recent NBC piece, the producers seems oblivious to comments made by the 28-year-old Crohn’s patient featured in the segment. The patient notes her health insurance covers the cost of her Humira medication, which is the difference between “life and death.” Unfortunately, that side of story that isn’t always featured on primetime, and some patients are starting to react.


Jean Walsh, a patient who suffers from Friedreich’s ataxia, a rare disease that causes damage to multiple systems in the body, penned a column this week that appeared in STAT News. Walsh had caught two recent stories on CBS’ 60 Minutes that she felt didn’t tell the whole story about drug prices. She called both segments “negative” and said they made her wonder why 60 Minutes didn’t interview the “millions” of viewers “with cancer or other devastating illnesses who, thanks to biopharmaceutical companies, are alive today.” Walsh said her impression, as someone with a rare disease, is that “the conversation about the biopharma industry — which is essentially ‘bad pharma’ — appears scarily without nuance.”


So she gives it nuance.


Walsh explains that, when she was diagnosed with Friedreich’s ataxia in 1981, one doctor predicted she’d be dead within a decade or two. With new treatments on the market, that prediction never was fulfilled. 


Walsh concludes her piece with commonsense advice lawmakers (and reporters) should consider. She shares, “The industry scientists I have met are motivated by a desire to cure disease.” She notes companies make money, but she “would rather have a company make money by helping me be healthy than by helping me look cute. No one is outraged that The Gap makes money. Why should people be outraged that a biopharma company makes money?”


That brings us to our final point: money and the cost of innovation.


The average cost to develop a new prescription drug exceeds $2.8 billion, a dramatic increase over the previous decade thanks to higher regulatory hurdles. The process takes more than a decade. Only 10 percent of new treatments make it to Phase 1 Food and Drug Administration testing. The biopharmaceutical invests more in research and development than any other industry, plowing more than 18 percent of its overall revenue into developing new medicine.


Citing an AbbVie spokesperson, NBC News briefly touched on the cost of innovation in its segment this week. Perhaps it’s time, though, for a deeper look at these costs and biopharmaceutical investment in general, and to hear from the individuals that, as Walsh reminds us, “are motivated by a desire to cure disease.” Those sound like people worth anointing as heroes, not condemning as villains just because a pair of billionaires tell us we should.