Presidential candidates should take bus trip of hope not fear
With cameras rolling in the run-up to the Democratic presidential primary debates, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) loaded a dozen patients on a bus for a campaign stunt across our country’s northern border to highlight insulin prices in Canada.
At a pharmacy in Windsor, Sanders didn’t reference the middlemen feeding at the trough of high drug prices. He said nothing about the pharmacy benefit managers hording rebate checks or insurers drowning patients in denials and paperwork until they stop taking the medicines they need.
Later, during a debate in Detroit, he attacked what he defined as the “corruption and the greed of the pharmaceutical industry,” contrasting Canada’s lower insulin prices with those “charged by the crooks who run the pharmaceutical industry in America today.”
This abject vilification of companies dedicated to saving lives isn’t unique to Sanders. Other politicians have used similar overheated rhetoric, and the president of the United States has charged the industry with “getting away with murder.”
These vile descriptions, coupled with radical policy proposals, have become standard talking points, but they are not based in fact. My fear is that these attacks will have a serious long-term impact on the work being done to find new cures and treatments for some of the most devastating and debilitating diseases.
I wonder what the young student who is passionate about science and dreams of life in a lab thinks when a top-tier presidential candidate calls those in the biopharmaceutical industry “crooks.” How does this rhetoric change the calculation of the socially-minded investor who is considering whether to put his or her money in a new startup working on Alzheimer’s or pediatric cancer or opioid alternatives?
So, I’m proposing a different kind of bus trip, a bus trip of hope. It will be open to all candidates who are serious about wanting to ensure patients have access to the cutting-edge medicines they need.
Our tour could start in Philadelphia for a glimpse of the future. It’s there that emerging biotechs are making history striving to bring gene therapies across the finish line. Thanks to their efforts, there is now a cure for an inherited disease that helps children going blind see again. While the scientific possibilities are seemingly endless, the candidates would learn how their proposed policies would stall or kill the investments necessary to advance these medical breakthroughs.
We can then head to Parsippany, N.J., where a small company is poised to make a big difference in stemming the opioid epidemic. Pacira Pharmaceutical’s non-opioid painkiller is modeled after the lidocaine you get at the dentist’s office. It numbs a surgical site for days and could help end the operating room as the gateway to opioid dependence. The candidates should talk to Pacira’s leadership about how tough it is to secure insurance coverage when generic opioids make more money for insurance companies.
The bus tour could then drive to New York for a meeting with the investors who are financing this revolution in cures. These life sciences investors, who lose money on nine of every 10 investments they make, will explain to the candidates the truth about foreign drug importation and foreign reference pricing. If we import European prices, we’ll get European levels of innovation. Simply put, with these policies in place, they’ll invest their money somewhere else.
We can continue the drive north to Cambridge, Mass. It’s there that Alnylam is working to harness the power of RNA interference to help patients facing rare diseases. Their researchers could describe the painstaking—and often heartbreaking—research process they’ve pursued over the last 17 years to bring new hope and treatments to patients without any.
The last stop is perhaps the most important. We could take the candidates to one of Boston’s many research hospitals and introduce them to the hundreds of heroes in clinical trials trying to end a myriad of diseases. Ask these patients and their families what it’s worth to them to keep the scientists in our small labs across the country working to find cures that could eliminate their disease. We cannot quash their hopes because it is politically popular to make drug companies villains.
The 2020 candidates need to meet the scientists toiling in these smaller research labs. These men and women work every day to get cures in the hands of the patients who need them.
Today’s drug pricing debate is offering up a simple scapegoat for a complex problem. Simplicity reigns in today’s media environment, but any real solution to helping patients afford their prescription drugs is anything but. It will require cooperation between the government and all the players in the value chain.
The Biotechnology Innovation Organization and its thousand companies, small, medium and large, are willing to be part of the solution. But we cannot allow the political expediency of today to jeopardize the future cures and treatments patients are counting on.
Jim Greenwood is president and CEO of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization. He represented Pennsylvania’s 8th District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1993 to 2005.