The National  Memo Logo

Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.

Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Tag: big pharma

Suspended Newsmax Correspondent Posts Wild COVID Conspiracy On Substack

Reprinted with permission from Alternet

Twitter suspended Newsmax's White House correspondent Emerald Robinson after she posted a ridiculous claim suggesting vaccines contain a Satanic tracker. Newsmax followed suit, benching Robinson while it reviews her tweets, several of which Twitter took down for violating its rules, and another it slapped a "misleading" warning label on.

Read Now Show less

Why Renegade Democrats Are Choosing Big Pharma Over Biden

Reprinted with permission from Daily Kos

When news broke Wednesday that three Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee had voted with Republicans to torpedo a wildly popular provision to lower prescription drug pricing, one could be forgiven for thinking those members anticipate a bruising reelection campaign in 2022.

Instead, Reps. Scott Peters of California, Kurt Schrader of Oregon, and Kathleen Rice of New York are nowhere to be found on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's (DCCC) list of Democrats' most at-risk front-line members. Fortunately, the drug pricing provision remains viable after enough Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee approved it as part of the panel's overall measure. The only Democrat who voted against it on Ways and Means was Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Florida, who doesn't appear on the DCCC's frontline list of vulnerable members either.

In fact, the drug pricing provision—which would allow Medicare to negotiate lower prescription drug prices—turns out to be wildly popular among a number House Democrats who are actually facing stiff reelection odds, as the HuffPost reporter Kevin Robillard wrote in July.

"The number one issue I hear about in my district is the cost of prescription drugs," said Rep. Susan Wild of Pennsylvania, who spearheaded a letter over the summer urging Democratic leadership to adopt the drug pricing measure.

Altogether, 15 Democrats signed onto Wild's letter—all of them part of the DCCC's front-line program.

So while Democratic members in states like Kansas, Iowa, and Georgia are trying to do right by their constituents in a battle for their political lives, those who hail from safe seats in states like New York and California are trying to doom one of the centerpieces of President Joe Biden's agenda.

Allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices polls better than perhaps any other single provision in Democrats' $3.5 trillion budget bill. A Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) poll in May found that "nearly nine in ten (88 percent) favor allowing the federal government to negotiate for lower prices on medications, including three-fourths (77 percent) of Republicans, nine in ten independents (89%) and 96% of Democrats." The measure is also expected to save the federal government some $500 billion (give or take) over the course of a decade—savings that will then be used to expand the umbrella of Medicare coverage to include dental, vision, and hearing benefits.

So what gives with these conserva-Dems? Money. Big Pharma is dishing out big money to Democrats who voted against the provision. As HuffPost's Daniel Marans notes:

  • Murphy is the second-highest recipient of Big Pharma PAC money in Congress so far this cycle at $54,000 and received $117,500from those PACs in the 2020 cycle.
  • Peters, the third-highest recipient of Big Pharma PAC money in Congress this cycle at $55,800, received $209,300 from those PACs in the 2020 cycle.
  • Schrader, the 21st-highest recipient of Big Pharma PAC money this cycle at $24,000, received $142,000 from those PACs in the 2020 cycle.

Rice's Big Pharma PAC haul isn't nearly as eye-popping at $3,000 so far this cycle and $5,500 last cycle. But Rep. Lou Correa of California, who has also made noise about opposing the measure, has taken in $14,500 from Big Pharma PACs this cycle and banked $75,000 last cycle.

The office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was quick to respond to the initiative's failure to gain approval in the Energy and Commerce Committee.

"Polling consistently shows immense bipartisan support for Democrats' drug price negotiation legislation, including overwhelming majorities of Republicans and independents who are fed up with Big Pharma charging Americans so much more than they charge for the same medicines overseas," said spokesperson Henry Connelly, promising that the initiative would "remain a cornerstone" of the Build Back Better Act.

Shortly after that statement, the Ways and Means panel approved almost identical drug pricing language.

The major hurdle, however, is that Pelosi can't afford to lose more than three Democrats on the $3.5 trillion budget bill overall. Murphy reportedly expressed optimism about still supporting the broader package, but "no" votes from Peters, Schafer, and Rice would imperil the entire bill.

Those members have also announced themselves as people who may invite a primary one day, particularly if they vote against overall passage.

"There's a lot of Democrats in deep blue seats who never get seriously challenged about how such large sums of corporate donations may influence their policy positions," said Waleed Shahid, a spokesperson for Justice Democrats, which works to unseat conserva-Dems in safe seats.

Here’s Who Got Rich From Trump’s Disastrous Response To The Pandemic

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch

Now that we're all unmasking and the economy seems set to roar into the 2020s, what will we remember about how disastrously, how malignantly, the Trump administration behaved as the pandemic took hold? And will anyone be held to account for it?

The instinct to forget pandemics, as I've pointed out when it came to the 1918 "Spanish flu," has historically been strong indeed. In these years, the urge to forget official malfeasance and move on has, it turns out, been at least as strong. Washington's failure to investigate and bring to account those who led the nation and ultimately the world into the folly of the Iraq War may be the most egregious recent example of this.

In the end, that's why I wrote my new book Virus — to memorialize a clear and accessible historical record of the deliberate and deadly decision-making that swept us all into a kind of hell. I had the urge to try to stop what happened to us from being instantly buried in the next round of daily reporting or, as appears likely now, relegated to the occasional voluminous government or foundation report on how to do things better.

In the early months of 2020, as rumors of distant death morphed into announcements of an imminent pandemic, followed by a patchwork of state and local lockdowns, most Americans were too stunned by daily events to absorb the bigger picture. Memories of those days still click by like surreal snapshots: prepper shopping, toilet-paper hoarders, forklifts moving bodies into refrigerated trucks, and a capricious leader on TV night after endless night talking about quack cures, his own ratings, and how he "liked the numbers low." Meanwhile, he left desperate states to compete with each other for badly needed protective gear.

What looked like chaos or ad hoc decision-making by an improbably elected fraudster president was, in fact, deeply rooted in ideology; specifically, in the belief that the job of the government was neither to exercise leadership, nor activate government agencies to assist the American people. It was to promote private industry and its profits as the solution to anything and everything pandemic.

That ideology led to profiteering, politicized science, and mass death. Now, as the pandemic wanes (at least for the time being, though not necessarily for the unvaccinated) in this country, it deserves an investigation. Somewhere between almost 600,000 and more than 900,000Americans have died so far from Covid-19, a significant number of those deaths unnecessary, as even the former administration's medical expert, Dr Deborah Birx, has said.

The virus arrived in America after the Trump administration — steered by right-wing Heritage Foundation policy wonks and their donor-class comrades — had already laid waste to key agencies like Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Centers for Disease Control. Their instant response to the pandemic was to similarly sideline government emergency-management experts, put inexperienced 20-something volunteers in charge of finding and distributing protective gear, and circulate lists of possible suppliers — one of whom, typically enough, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur with no medical contracting experience, snagged a cool $86-million contract from the state of New York for ventilators he would never deliver.

While most of the country hunkered down in a state of stunned paralysis, a faction of Trumpworld recognized the pandemic not for what it took away — human lives and livelihoods — but for what it offered. The chaos of the moment allowed them to road-test their dream system, to prove once and for all that the forces of supply and demand, the instinct to make a buck, could do a better job managing a natural disaster than the government of the United States and its bureaucrats.

Is any of this likely to be investigated? Will anyone be held accountable for what appears to have been a response deliberately mismanaged by religious zealots and crony capitalists, crews equally cynical about expertise, science, and the government's ability to prevent or ameliorate disaster?

What We Don't Know About The Trump Pandemic Disaster

Here, as a start, is a rundown of where inquiries into that disaster now stand.

Buried in the alphabet soup of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act is the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee (PRAC), established in March 2020 to keep track of the federal money (by now $5.5 trillion) that was to be spent on the pandemic. It's a consortium of agency inspector generals, headed by Michael Horowitz, a career Department of Justice lawyer. His name will be familiar to anyone who followed the Trump-Russia investigations. He produced a report in 2019 that — to the dismay of Trump's supporters — failed to conclude that the FBI had begun investigating connections between Vladimir Putin's Russia and the Trump campaign without legal cause and as a political dirty trick.

PRAC is authorized to conduct oversight of pandemic-related emergency spending of any sort. Its inspector generals have already issued nearly 200 pandemic-related oversight reports and charged 474 people with trying to steal more than $569 million. (Details in its quarterly reports are available online.)

While PRAC has been genuinely nonpartisan in its acts, its focus so far has been on the small fry of the pandemic era, not the truly big fish. In its most recent semi-annual report, for example, it makes clear that 55 percent of its charges had to do with fraud in the Paycheck Protection Program and 40 percent were related to fraudulent unemployment assistance claims. Among the bigger PRAC successes: charging a Texas man in a $24-million Covid-relief fraudulent loan scheme last October and seven men in another fraud scheme in which they used their ill-gotten pandemic gains to buy, among other things, a Porsche and a Lamborghini.

The CARES Act also authorized the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to monitor the federal response to the pandemic. Its most recent semi-annual report included 16 recommendations in selected public-health areas like testing, vaccines, and therapeutics, only one of which has so far been implemented. A source at the GAO told me that a report on some contracting irregularities can be expected this summer.

So far, such government self-assessments have shown little appetite for dealing with the true cronyism, profiteering, and disastrous politicization of the federal pandemic response by Trump's minions. Among the schemes begging for a deeper look is Operation Airbridge. Led by the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, it was an attempt to use federal funds to underwrite the air-shipping costs of private companies in an effort to speed the delivery of the kinds of personal protective equipment that were in such short supply last spring. That unorthodox effort included large no-bid contracts granted to a small group of private health-care companies without restrictions on pricing or even on where the desperately needed products were to be delivered.

In the spring of 2020, as hospital workers began popping up on social media and network news programs clad only in garbage bags and makeshift or reused face masks, sometimes in tears and pleading for help, the White House maintained its focus on private enterprise as the way out of the disaster. The administration called for volunteers to staff what would become another public/private bonanza, the White House Covid-19 Supply Chain Task Force, also helmed by Trump family fixer, Jared Kushner.

We don't know what, if anything, Kushner's group actually accomplished. The audacity of the former administration's disregard for federal rules and regulations coupled with the scale of the no-bid contracts they issued certainly attracted political pushback at the time. Democrats and civil-society groups in Washington filed requests for more information about how such contracts had eluded federal guidelines, and where the supplies actually went.

It's possible, however, that we may never know.

Ventilating Money

In April 2020, a group of Democratic senators led by Elizabeth Warren, citing the administration's secrecy, opened an investigation into the operation. They sent a letter to the six Operation Airbridge beneficiary health-care giants — Cardinal Health, Concordance, Henry Schein, McKesson, Medline, and Owens & Minor — requesting explanations for reports of "political favoritism, cronyism, and price-gouging" in the ongoing supply effort. "Taxpayers have shelled out tens of millions of dollars on this secretive project and they deserve to know whether it actually helped get critical supplies to the areas most in need," Warren said that June.

Three of the six suppliers did, in the end, give the senators copies of memorandums of agreement (MOAs) indicating that they "had complete discretion about how to distribute supplies across hotspot counties" and that "nothing in the MOAs appears to prevent a supplier from sending all of its supplies designated for hotspots to just a single customer in one of the hotspots." The government hadn't, in fact, put any kind of conditions on the cost for that protective equipment and the Trump Justice Department would insist that it was none of its business how suppliers arrived at the prices they charged for it.

Using taxpayer funds to grease private enrichment was, of course, a Trump family tradition, going back to the Eisenhower years when Donald's father, Fred, fleeced the government of millions of dollars in loans aimed at housing World War II veterans. Hauled down to Capitol Hill to explain himself, the New York builder was unrepentant, arguing that a loophole in the law allowed for his private gain and, under such circumstances, only a fool would have left all that money on the table.

What, from the outside, came to look like White House inspired chaos — of which Operation Airbridge was just one example — should, in fact, be seen as a deliberate effort to disengage the federal government and leave the blame and the logistics problems to Covid-afflicted states, at the time mostly run by Democrats.

On March 24, 2020, for instance, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo begged the federal government to help get more ventilators for what was clearly going to be a surge of coronavirus patients. (New York City's health-care system was already overwhelmed by then.) At the time, hooking patients up to ventilators seemed like the best way to go, though doctors later realized that, for many patients, the tricky disease could be foiled earlier with anticlotting and steroid medication.

"How can you have New Yorkers possibly dying because they can't get a ventilator?" asked Cuomo. Three days later, Trump tweeted, "General Motors must… start making ventilators, now! Ford, get going on ventilators, fast!"

Yaron Oren-Pines, an electrical engineer for tech firms like Google, tweeted back at the president, "We can supply ICU ventilators, invasive and non-invasive." Within days, he turned up on a list vetted by Kushner's team of volunteers and, at their recommendation, officials in New York closed a deal with him.

The only problem: Oren-Pines had no ventilators and had never been in the medical supply business. When he failed to deliver on the $86 million deal, Wells Fargo froze his account and New York canceled the order, demanding the money back, though by summer 2020, it had yet to collect a final $10 million.

The Great Forgetting?

In addition to making various large or politically well-connected health-care companies far wealthier, the administration also lavished staggering billions on a small group of Big Pharma firms for Operation Warp Speed, the project it backed to develop vaccines and medicines to treat Covid-19. Those contracts, too, were written outside normal government channels and the companies themselves were chosen by a panel of industry insiders without any oversight. Many of them stood to (and did) profit from the soaring stock prices of those firms when the news about clinical trial successes was released.

In November 2020, to launch an investigation into that situation, Senator Warren teamed up with Representative Katie Porter (D-CA) to request copies of all federal contracts for Covid-19 therapeutics and vaccines. "The American people," they stated, "deserve to know that the federal government is using their tax dollars to develop Covid-19 medical products at the best possible price for the public — not to line the pockets of wealthy companies by cutting corners in consumer protection, pricing, and quality."

Warren raised questions about a Department of Health and Human Services deal with Gilead Sciences for the pandemic therapeutic remdesivir (part of the "cocktail" of drugs administered to Donald Trump and other Republican insiders like Chris Christie and Rudy Giuliani when they got Covid). HHS had indeed acquired a large supply of remdesivir at an exorbitant cost to American taxpayers and Gilead itself would charge American hospitals $3,200 per treatment for it, $860 more than its price in other developed countries.

In addition to Warren, who sent a letter to the administration requesting information on HHS's pricing negotiations with Gilead for the drug, other people also stood up. Whistleblower Dr. Rick Bright, former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Agency (BARDA), for instance, filed a whistleblower complaint alleging that Dr. Robert Kadlec, a Trump HHS political appointee, had engaged in multiple schemes to funnel contracts to politically connected companies — and that this had begun even before the pandemic was even a reality. According to Bright, Kadlec then pushed him out of the government, despite the fact that federal law officially protects whistleblowers.

In his complaint, among other things, Bright alleged that in 2017, a Kadlec friend and Big Pharma consultant pressured the agency to maintain a contract with a company owned by a friend of Jared Kushner's, even after an independent review determined it should be cancelled. Bright testified before Congress, and the fate of his whistleblower suit remains to be litigated.

As for the rest of the inquiries, so far, money and power appear to have eluded the investigators. It's unclear whether Senator Warren's and Representative Porter's requests met with any response from the former administration, or even whether they've continued their inquiry into Big Pharma and no-bid contracting. They have made no further announcements and neither office replied to requests for updates.

You won't be surprised to learn, I'm sure, that the name "Jared Kushner" is so far not to be found in GAO or PRAC reports.

The best chance for public accountability — if not legal liability — might be the House of Representatives, especially its Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, launched in April 2020. The Trump administration blew off its subpoenas for former HHS Secretary Alex Azar and then-CDC Director Robert Redfield to testify in December 2020, and blocked documents and witnesses related to politicized data, testing, and supply shortages, among other areas of inquiry. But the subcommittee did manage to expose emails from Trump political appointees, revealing efforts to skew CDC data. It is also investigating some whopping no-bid or sole-contractor deals that the former administration cut with preferred businesses. One was a $354-million four-year contract awarded on a non-competitive basis to PHLOW, which was incorporated in January 2020 to manufacture generic medicines to fight Covid. It's the largest contract ever awarded by BARDA and includes a 10-year option worth $812 million.

And the House has continued to seek transparency. According to a Brookings House Oversight Tracker, as of March 2021, 30 percent of congressional oversight letters and 40 percent of its hearings were related to the federal government's pandemic response. But there are signs that the Biden administration, while more cooperative, is not eager to force agencies to comply with requests the previous administration ignored.

My sense is that the emergency created by the insurrection at the Capitol last January and the desperate need of the new Biden administration to have palpable policy achievements in order to do well in election 2022 has taken the steam out of any inclination to dig deeper into the profiteering, cronyism, political scheming, and chaos with which the Trump administration met the Covid-19 virus. It went far deeper than an article like this can possibly indicate, leaving so many hundreds of thousands of potentially unnecessary deaths in its wake.

Think of it as a memory hole, still brimming with schemes and money.


Nina Burleigh, a TomDispatch regular, is a journalist of American politics and the author of six previous books. Her seventh, Virus: Vaccinations, the CDC, and the Hijacking of America's Response to the Pandemic(just published by Seven Stories Press) is a real-life thriller that delves into the official malfeasance behind America's pandemic chaos and the triumph of science in an era of conspiracy theories and contempt for experts.

Sen. Burr Sold His Pricey Townhouse To Lobbyist Donor


The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard Burr, has come under fire in recent weeks for unloading stock holdings right before the market crashed on fears of coronavirus and for a timely sale of shares in an obscure Dutch fertilizer company.

Now the North Carolina Republican's 2017 sale of his Washington, D.C., home to a group led by a donor and powerful lobbyist who had business before Burr's committee is raising additional ethical questions.

Read Now Show less

How Trump’s New NAFTA Shafts Workers And Consumers Again

“Keep your eye on the ball” is a core principle not only for baseball players but also for us commoners trying to assess exactly what the spinmeisters of global trade are hurling at us. Their deals are and always have been large-scale hustles, filled with hypocrisy, deceit and greed. Promoted as fair and good for all, they’re invariably rigged with profiteering schemes that lock into law advantages for corporations over the common good of consumers, the environment, labor, independent businesses, governments and all other democratic forces.

Further, they are works of deliberate deception, drafted in strict secrecy and couched in page after page of arcane legalese that intentionally obscures the corporate thievery so We the People don’t know that we’ve been had until it’s too late. They hide the ball to keep you, me and even Congress from seeing specifically who’ll profit and who’ll pay. So, heads up, for here comes another sucker pitch.

“A historic transaction,” Trump grandiloquently hailed his Afta-NAFTA handiwork in an April tweet, lauding the 1,809-page United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement as “the most important trade deal we’ve ever made by far.” Backed by a coalition of some 200 corporate and Wall Street powerhouses, Trump demanded that Congress quickly ratify the USMCA “so we can bring back our manufacturing jobs in even greater numbers, expanding American agriculture, protecting intellectual property.” “Once again,” swooned Fox personality Laura Ingraham, “Trump delivers.”

Yes, but what … and for whom?

Big Pharma: If the USMCA passes as currently drafted, it would require the governments of the U.S., Mexico and Canada to guarantee — and even extend — Big Pharma’s monopoly price-setting power. Specifically, the deal gives drugmakers 10 years of exclusive marketing for critical “biologic” meds that millions of people need — in addition to the 20-year monopoly that U.S. patent laws already grant. Trump’s deal would prevent generic competitors from offering cheaper versions for an extra decade while also shackling Canadians and Mexicans to the pricing racket that Pharma already runs in the U.S.

Big Oil: Although the USMCA largely eliminates the anti-democratic and unjust system of dispute-deciding corporate-run “courts,” seven oil behemoths (including Shell, ExxonMobil and Chevron) would retain their NAFTA-granted access to these odious tribunals. One particular concern is that the giants will use these kangaroo courts to block Mexican efforts to strengthen environment and health protections and address the climate crisis.

Big Bosses: The USMCA would finally outlaw Mexico’s notorious company-run “unions” that allow workers no control or even participation. While the deal prohibits these fraudulent labor units, it provides no way to monitor, much less enforce, corporate compliance.

Big Food: The original NAFTA included a literal gag rule. It allowed cheaply produced Mexican beef and other meat to be sold in the U.S. — even if it didn’t meet our food safety standards. Trump’s “fantastic” redo of NAFTA keeps this rule prohibiting our supposedly sovereign government from setting our own health standards for meat sold to our consumers.

Congress must obviously kill this thing, right?

Hmmm … not so fast. Even with all the uglies and absurdities in the USMCA, progressive strategists see enough pretties and potential for fixes that it could become one of the only positives to emerge from Trump Hell. As Lori Wallach, head of Public Citizen’s savvy band of trade jujitsu artists puts it, “Improbably, things are going quite well.” Prettiest of all is the USMCA’s whacking down of NAFTA’s most repugnant component: “investor-state dispute settlement” tribunals. These autocratic, plutocratic, corporate-controlled “courts” empower multinational corporations to obtain unlimited taxpayer dollars through specious lawsuits claiming that their special NAFTA privileges are restricted by the people’s democratically enacted laws — laws intended to protect consumers, workers, the environment and other social/economic interests. The investor-state dispute settlement provision is an anti-democratic abomination, and gutting it would truly be a huge step forward — one worth taking while we can.

Further, if we can strengthen the USMCA’s labor and environmental standards — and make them strictly enforceable — they might counter corporate America’s race-to-the-bottom outsourcing that converts middle-class U.S. jobs into Mexican sweatshop servitude. And of course, the absurd goodies for Big Pharma must be removed. But the fight, then, is not simply to reject the USMCA but instead to expose its flaws, democratize it and force improvements. That’s not easy, but it’s doable.

Yes, trade fights can be complex and tedious, but pay attention to this one. The USMCA is a momentous battle that’s more about people’s democratic power than trade. It unites folks across the left-right political spectrum, it’s worth the fight, and it’s winnable — if we team up to wrangle our Congress critters to oppose Trump’s corporatized version and add essential democratizing improvements. Let’s do it!

Can These Corporate Titans Reform Health Care — And Tame Big Pharma?

President Trump offered few words about health care in his State of the Union address. He did mention drug prices, though.

“One of my greatest priorities is to reduce the price of prescription drugs,” he said. “In many other countries, these drugs cost far less than what we pay in the United States. … That is why I have directed my administration to make fixing the injustice of high drug prices one of my top priorities.”

Which is an interesting thing for Trump to say, given that he has just made Alex Azar, a top executive at drugmaker Eli Lilly, head of Health and Human Services. Lilly tripled the price of insulin during Azar’s tenure there. Suffice it to say, the one injustice Eli Lilly does not want to fix is high drug prices.

There was a bigger story going on, and it was not unrelated. Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase announced that they are putting their heads together to create a health care plan for their 1.1 million U.S. employees. Sounds like leverage to me. Eight states have fewer people.

During the presidential campaign, Trump vowed that if elected, he would have Medicare negotiate more favorable drug prices with the manufacturers. Since he took office, that pledge has not seen the light of day.

Washington was never good at standing up to the medical-industrial complex. There’s too much money to be made in standing down. And a separation between the public’s wallet and Big Pharma’s desire to extract huge profits is surely one wall Trump will never build.

But the medical industry does not own Amazon, the world’s largest internet company, or Berkshire Hathaway, the conglomerate Fortune ranks as America’s third-most profitable company, or JPMorgan Chase, America’s biggest bank.

The fine details have yet to be revealed, but the stated plan is to create a company that would be free from profit-making incentives. That’s not great news for profit-oriented suppliers. The stocks of UnitedHealth Group, Aetna and CVS — which plans to buy Aetna — all took a beating after the announcement.

The partners say they will use technology to simplify the delivery of health care. And they insist the new system will improve the services available to employees.

The beauty of this corporate trio’s gambit is they are bypassing the politicians. Their aim is to “disrupt” the forces that saddle them with exorbitant prices.

“The ballooning costs of health care act as a hungry tapeworm on the American economy,” Warren Buffett, Berkshire’s fabled CEO, stated with trademark simplicity.

Wonder what they’re going to do about drug prices. The drug Humira offers a window into the challenges.

According to the ads, Humira enables a woman hurting from rheumatoid arthritis to chase her puppy all over the house. (“Ask your doctor about Humira.”) In 2012, Humira cost a ridiculous $19,000 a year. Its maker, AbbVie, recently raised the price to a piratical $38,000.

The bottom line is that the U.S. spends nearly twice as much on health care as a percentage of the economy as do other industrialized countries — while its people use about the same amount of health care. Corporate America has long objected to what this costly health care is doing to its bottom line.

So bringing down the prices is the big game in taming total health care spending. No one says this will be easy, and doubters point to past failed corporate efforts. But these are three giants who don’t scare easily. Amazon has already shown interest in selling pharmaceuticals.

Since Washington won’t do much about the prices for health care, let’s see what Amazon, Berkshire and JPMorgan come up with. Go forth and disrupt, we say.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com. To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.

PHOTO: Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, speaks  in Washington, D.C.,  October 13, 2015. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Three Ground-Breaking Progressive Initiatives That Are Under the Radar This Election

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet

On November 8th citizens in 35 states vote on 163 ballot initiatives. They cover a wide range of subjects (e.g. marijuana, minimum wage, taxes, gun control). To my mind, initiatives in three states — California on reducing drug prices, South Dakota on revamping its political system, and New Mexico on the inequitable use of bail — stand out as having a potentially broad national impact.

California Takes on Big Pharma

Californians will vote on a ballot initiative that requires state agencies to pay no more for any prescription drug than the lowest price paid by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for the same drug. It would apply to more than 1 million state and public university employees as well as 3 million Medicaid patients (although it would exclude 10 million Californians on managed care Medicaid plans.)

Pharma Exec magazine warns its readers, passage of Proposition 61, “would shake the rafters of every single state drug program in the nation, as well as the federal Medicaid and Medicare programs.” It’s a warning well with heeding. Federal law entitles all state Medicaid programs to the lowest prescription drug prices available to most public and private payers in the U.S., excluding the VA.  Medicaid discounts ordinarily are in the 20 percent range, but VA discounts can be as high as 42 percent.  Thus the California measure could extend the VA’s low drug prices to Medicaid programs serving tens of millions of additional people nationwide.

As of October 20, pharmaceutical companies had spent more than $109 million to defeat the measure compared to just $15 million for supporters.  Nevertheless, the initiative appears headed to victory.

The pricing of drugs has become a national disgrace.  Horror stories abound. Turing Pharmaceuticals purchased the rights to a generic AIDS drug and promptly raises its price from $13.50 to $750 a pill.  According to Forbes, prices increased by 100 percent or more between 2013 and 2014, in 222 generic drug groups. Specialty drugs have become astronomically expensive. Reuters reports that in 2014, annual medication costs of 139,000 Americans exceeded $100,000, nearly triple the number who reached that level a year earlier.

The pharmaceutical industry is astonishingly profitable.  Median return on assets is more than double the rest of the Fortune 500, according to Alfred Engelberg.  The industry is awash in cash.  Pfizer holds $74 billion in unrepatriated profits overseas and Merck holds $60 billion, enough to fund their respective annual research budgets for 10 years.

While the industry reaps the financial benefits, the taxpayer bears much of the financial cost. Some observers calculate that direct and indirect government support is such that private industry pays only about a third of R&D costs.  Pouring salt in he taxpayers’ wounds, the government gifts these largely publicly funded drugs long-term patent protection. Which is one reason, as the Washington Post reports, drug companies focus on marketing, often spending $2 for marketing for every $1 spent on research.

Despite repeated scandals, the federal government has been unwilling or uninterested in stepping in. Congress hoots and hollers about the outrageous price hikes but specifically prohibits Medicare from negotiating with drug companies for price discounts.  Federal law allows the government to unilaterally lower the price of drugs developed with government funds when a company is gouging customers, but the Administration so far has refused to wield this power.  The government could also allow the import of less expensive equivalent drugs, but the Administration has refused to exercise this authority either.

Which leaves it up to the people to assert their own authority, in those states where this is possible. That’s what Californians have done.

South Dakotans take on the political establishment

South Dakotans will vote on three initiatives that, if taken together, could change the face of state politics.

Amendment V converts all state elections into nonpartisan contests. There would no longer be Democrat or Republican primaries. The top two finishers in the first round of voting would face off in the general election. California, Louisiana and Washington have similar run-off systems but in those states candidates still run with a party label.  That would be prohibited in South Dakota, making it the only state apart from Nebraska to have purely non-partisan elections. (Nebraska had its own political revolution in 1934 when its citizens rose up against an inefficient and unresponsive political system and voted not only to convert to nonpartisan elections but to introduce the nation’s first and only unicameral state legislature.)

Amendment T creates a commission to redraw state legislative districts every ten years when a new census comes out.  Ordinarily redistricting is done by legislators themselves, but as Matt Sibley, one of the organizers for Amendment T, told Governing Magazine,  “There is an inherent flaw in the system when legislators are picking out there own legislative districts.” In-house redistricting often results in a number of uncontested legislative races, diminishing the value of the franchise for those living in that district. The new commission will be barred from considering the party affiliation of voters and location of incumbent lawmakers when drawing new maps.

Measure 22 is the most complex of the three initiatives, requiring many changes to election law.  The most important is the creation of Democracy Credits.  Each registered voter will receive two $50 Democracy Credits they can donate to state legislative candidates who agree to participate in at least three public debates and cap the amount of private money they receive per contributor.  Democracy Credits, or Democracy Vouchers as they are sometimes called were first adopted in 2015 by initiative by Seattle voters. (Washingtonians are also voting on the issue. Initiative 1464 gives every registered voter three Democracy Credits of $50 to donate to state legislative candidates who agree to certain conditions.)

New Mexico takes on debtors’ prisons

In November New Mexico may become the first state to directly address a basic inequity of the justice system: the use of bail.

In 1987 the Supreme Court declared, “In our society liberty is the norm, and detention prior to trial or without trial is the carefully limited exception.” Nevertheless, in most of America, lower-income people who have been arrested and can’t afford bail sit in jail for weeks, months, even years before seeing a judge. Their involuntary incarceration can result in lost jobs, lost income and increased family stress all of which raise the likelihood of guilty please and reoffending.

According to the Department of Justice, 95 percent of the growth in the jail population since 2000 is attributed to an increase in pretrial detainees, Christopher Moraff reports in Next City. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, the average number of days that people stay in jail awaiting trial has increased from 14 days in 1983 to 23 days in 2013. Nationwide, according to a Harvard Law School report, 34 percent of defendants are kept in jail pretrial solely because they are unable to pay a cash bond. In 2011, 60 percent of local jail inmates were pretrial detainees and 75 percent of those detainees were charged with property, drug or other nonviolent offenses.

The perverse and unjust consequences of bail have begun to receive national attention as part of the larger concern about the revival of issue of the revival of debtors’ prisons. In March, the Justice Department sent a letter to judges cautioning them that employing “bail or bond practices that cause indigent defendants to remain incarcerated solely because they cannot afford to pay for their release” is a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee of equal protection.

In 2015, Equal Justice Under Law and the Southern Center for Human Rights filed a class action lawsuit against the city of Calhoun, Georgia for its practice of requiring bail for indigent defendants even when that would force them to remain in jail. The case involved a disabled man jailed for six days because he couldn’t afford to pay a $160 fixed cash bail bond. In January the District Court ruled in their favor, issued an injunction against the city of Calhoun, and ordered it to implement a new bail scheme and release any misdemeanor arrestees in the meantime.

The city has appealed, arguing, “the Constitution does not guarantee bail, it only bans excessive bail.”

In August the Department of Justice, for the first time submitted a formal amicus brief on the subject of bail to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals on behalf of the plaintiffs.

Some jurisdictions have begun to change their pretrial release policies so that danger to the community and likelihood of flight are the main factors to determine pretrial release, not whether the accused can pay bail, with significant success. In a New York City pilot program, 1,100 people were granted supervised relief; 87 percent showed up to court when required without incident.  From July 2013 to December 2014, Mesa County, Colorado was able to reduce its pretrial jail population by 27 percent without negative consequences for public safety.

Washington, D.C. has run an essentially cashless justice system for those accused of misdemeanors for many years. Nearly 88 percent of defendants in D.C. are released with non-financial conditions. Between 2007 and 2012, 90 percent of released defendants made all scheduled court appearances; over 91 percent were not rearrested while in the community before trial. Ninety-nine percent were not rearrested for a violent crime.

The New Mexico initiative originated with a murder case in which the defendant, remained in jail for more than two years without going to trial even though he agreed to wear a GPS device, make regular contact with the court and was not considered a danger to the community or likely to flee. The state Supreme Court rule in favor of the defendant. A task force recommended an amendment to the “right to bail” provision in the New Mexico constitution.

Constitutional Amendment 1 is a legislatively referred initiative passed with broad bipartisan support. No group is campaigning against it. Perhaps because it is a result of legislative action, the initiative reflects the give and take of the legislative process. Thus the Amendment also gives judges more discretion to keep dangerous people in jail — even if they can afford bail. A study from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation shows that nearly half of the highest-risk defendants are released pending trial while low-risk, non-violent defendants are frequently detained.

Perhaps more important, negotiations have resulted in final language more problematic than the original. Originally the Amendment was clearly and directly stated: “A person who is not a danger and is otherwise eligible for bail shall not be detained solely because of financial inability to post a money or property bond.” The final language reads, “A defendant who is neither a danger nor a flight risk and who has a financial inability to post a money or property bond may file a motion with the court requesting relief from the requirement to post bond. The court shall rule on the motion in an expedited manner.”

Some worry the additional conditions might raise barriers to achieving the objective. But most are optimistic that the New Mexico law will break new ground in efforts to make the justice system more equitable. New Mexico Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles W. Daniels, a prime mover behind the initiative contends, “There is nothing I’ve done or will do on the court that is going to be a more important improvement of justice than getting this amendment passed.”

Whatever the outcome of the elections, a tip of the hat is in order to the citizens of California, New Mexico and South Dakota for giving themselves the opportunity to directly address some of the key problems facing the country.

IMAGE:  jimmywayne via Flickr

How Big Pharma Is Trying to Improve Its Image

Big news, people! Especially for those of you upset by the skyrocketing prices of the essential prescription medicines you take — including thousands of patients who were hit last year with a 5,000 percent price increase for one lifesaving drug!

Determined to do something about those despised price hikes, drugmakers themselves have reached into their corporate toolbox for the two most effective means they have to fix their price problem. Of course, putting more corporate cash into research to produce new medicines would be one of those tools, and a renewed commitment to honest competition would be the other, right?

Right! But Big Pharma gave up years ago on doing right, turning to two other corporate tools that have reliably generated a gusher of profits for them: advertising and lobbying. So here they come, wielding bigger-than-ever ad-and-lobbying budgets to deal with that pesky matter of public anger at price gouging.

If you wonder why Congress keeps ignoring what the people want it to do — while doing things that people don’t want it doing — take a peek at the unique PR campaign now being run by Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. PhRMA is America’s largest pharmaceutical lobbying group and represents Eli Lilly, Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline, Merck & Co and about three dozen other drug manufactures.

The intent of PhRMA’s multimillion-dollar PR blitz and intensified offensive in Congress is not to restrain the gouging but to improve the industry’s image in hopes of restraining lawmakers from taking steps to rein in prescription costs. Of course, the ads dishonestly fail to mention the selfish intent of being allowed to keep ripping off patients, instead pitching drugmakers as selfless saviors of humanity. They feature soft scenes of drug researchers in white lab coats urgently trying to find new cures, scripted testimonials from patients and of course scenes of drugmakers altruistically aiding poor people.

The American public is dismayed and disgusted by the flagrant greed of drugmakers that are shamefully zooming the prices of medicines into the stratosphere, turning necessities into unaffordable luxuries. As a result, there is a growing demand for Congress to take action to stop the industry’s out-of-control gouging.

Hoping to counter this demand for action, drug companies have launched their massive advertising campaign, not only running radio and print ads but also placing ads on Facebook, Twitter and other social media websites. Yet it’s not likely that you’ve seen or heard any of them. That’s because drug chieftains don’t care what you and I think.  Moreover, they know they couldn’t possibly persuade us to let them keep jacking up our prices. So, their “public” relations effort has made the odd and seemingly counterproductive move of sidestepping the actual public, instead narrowly targeting a very tiny audience.

As one CEO arrogantly put it: “We’ve identified 7,000 Americans who matter,” thus dismissing the other 330 million of us as nobodies. “We’re focusing on those in policy positions … to fight structural issues,” he sniffed. By “structural issues,” he means convincing Congress to take no action to reform the present pricing structure of monopolistic drugmakers, whose guiding corporate ethic is: “Bleed ’em for all they’ve got.”

So this is a surreptitious PR campaign meant to reach only the eyes and ears of policy elites. The goal is to have Congress — once again — ignore what the people want it to do, thus allowing the corporate few “who matter” to keep fleecing the many. The word for this is “plutocracy.” The industry is spending millions on this corporate medicine show not to protect its notorious profiteering but to protect you from public officials who might try to stop them from overcharging you. It’s enough to make you sick.

To find out more about Jim Hightower, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at www.creators.com.
COPYRIGHT 2016 CREATORS.COM

Photo: Martin Shkreli, former CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals LLC, arrives before a House Oversight and Government Reform hearing on “Developments in the Prescription Drug Market Oversight” on Capitol Hill in Washington