Top Dem: Trade deal could restrict access to cheaper medicines

Top Dem: Trade deal could restrict access to cheaper medicines
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Rep. Sandy Levin (Mich.), the top Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, says a new trade deal could be a “major step backwards” on access to affordable medicines.

In an op-ed Thursday, Levin raised concerns that the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, which the U.S. is negotiating, will curtail access to generic drugs.

“Is TPP the most progressive trade agreement in history?” Levin wrote in The Huffington Post, referring to a claim made by President Obama, who backs the emerging deal. “Not if you need access to affordable medicines.”

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Levin raises his concerns as the fight over fast-track trade authority, which would expand Obama's powers to negotiate the deal, heads to the House. The issue is splitting Obama and many congressional Democrats, who are wary of the pact. 

Levin has proposed an alternative to fast-track with specific negotiating instructions to address problems he sees with TPP. 

One of his concerns with the Pacific trade deal is that it extends more patent protection to drug companies, meaning the generic versions of medicines, which are typically cheaper, would not be available as quickly as they are now.

Levin points to the “May 10th Agreement,” a 2007 deal between congressional Democrats and then-President George W. Bush over, among other things, protecting access to medicine in trade deals being negotiated then. 

“U.S. negotiators in TPP are attempting to roll back some of these provisions and to introduce still further protections for patent applicants or patent holders, at the expense of access to medicines,” Levin wrote.

One of the provisions he points to discusses requiring developing countries to “graduate” to higher patent protections found in developed countries. Levin says poorer countries could be forced into this before they are ready. 

He adds negotiators might make it harder to address the practice of tweaking a product in order to extend its patent and that language calling for speedier processing of patent applications, avoiding the need for extensions because of delays, could be dropped. 

“TPP must meet the standards set in the May 10th Agreement,” Levin wrote. “Right now it does not. It should not be loaded up with new anticompetitive provisions when governments struggle to manage health care costs.”