Some of DrRich’s conservative friends become quite exercised when they hear news commentators in the major media favorably contrasting the Occupy Wall Street movement with the Tea Party.
The Tea Party, the news readers intone, is a phony “movement” dreamed up by the Koch brothers to embarrass our first black president and to consolidate their own wealth, for which they recruited hordes of superstitious, back-woods, gun-toting, ignorant, NASCAR-loving, Bible-thumping, bigoted Ma and Pa Kettles to gather on the Mall, along with their Fox News cheerleaders and their country music stars, in a futile attempt to intimidate the enlightened leaders of the Democratic party into abandoning their program of good works. The Occupy Movement, in contrast, is a spontaneous uprising of innocent and right-thinking citizens against the tyranny of the Republican-controlled Wall Street fat-cat oligarchy, and their noble efforts have been explicitly blessed by such luminaries as Obama, Biden, and Pelosi.
Conservative Americans have a different perspective: The Tea Party was a completely spontaneous expression of public disapproval of a federal government run amok, and its gatherings are notable for its respectful, clean, polite, hard-working, law-abiding participants. The Occupy Movement, in contrast, is a contrived, Soros-funded attempt to undermine the American system, and, as one might expect from such a travesty, the Occupadoes are filthy, lawless, selfish, lazy and unappreciative of the blessings of America, which they themselves (judging from their smartphones and college degrees) have demonstrably received.
What conservatives and progressives seem to agree upon, in the matter of the Tea Party vs. the Occupy Movement, is that one is disruptive and disreputable, while the other is enlightened and constructive. They simply differ on is which is which.
For the benefit of his readers, DrRich would like to point out that, despite the foregoing, the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street actually have a fundamental similarity between them. They are both middle class movements which are motivated by a conviction that the American system is moving in the wrong direction, that a major feature of that “wrong direction” is that an elite few have gained power that has enabled them to block the upward mobility that is supposed to be a part of the American compact, and that a fundamental change is in order. The solutions they advocate are very different from one another, of course, but their problem statements are very similar. And, most significantly, they both arise from the middle class.
At least since around 1500 AD (since the time when we can say that a middle class was present in most Western societies) the true revolutions – rapid, fundamental changes in the political system (not merely in who is leading the political system, but in the system itself) – have come to pass only when the middle class has finally become sufficiently aroused to demand (or at least tolerate) radical change. The American revolution, the French revolution, the Cromwell revolution (and the subsequent restoration), the Iranian revolution, the Nazi takeover of Germany, the fall of the USSR, various Mexican and South American revolutions, and virtually every revolutionary political upheaval one can think of in the last 500 years occurred only when the middle class had finally had it.
Political leaders instinctively understand that they can treat the poor and downtrodden as badly as they want to, and they will never rise up. (This is where John Brown got it wrong.) And so, from the political standpoint, while it might be worthwhile stirring up the emotions of the poor (at least in a democracy), in general the actual needs of the poor can be safely ignored.
But the needs of the middle class must be seen to, at all costs.
This is why Democrats (and their supporters in the media) were so unreasonably critical of the Tea party movement when it first presented itself, painting it as violent, unAmerican and racist, despite the fact that no objective evidence supported any of these charges. They were frightened nearly unto death by the implications of such a widespread middle-class expression of dissatisfaction with the direction the country is going – a direction that had been manifest for decades, but which was greatly accelerated during the first years of the Obama Presidency.
And it explains why Republicans were so quick to identify with the Tea Party (even though the mainstream Republican party is actually quite suspicious of it).
And so, when the Occupy movement finally appeared – a different middle-class movement sporting a redistributive agenda that is in line with major elements of the Democratic party – our Democrat leaders could not contain their delight. This, despite the rather odious and “non-traditional” behavior of the Occupadoes, including their public defecation, urination, fornication, rapine, drug use, property destruction, &c, that, in more normal times, would have politicians of both parties lining up to vilify them. Democrats reassure themselves that, while the Occupadoes might be dirtbags, if we play our cards right they can become OUR dirtbags.
Smart politicians in both political parties recognize the potential for real revolution in both of these movements – to reiterate, that both arise out of the middle class, and both are demanding fundamental change – and they understand the need to co-opt the one, and suppress the other.
And so the battle lines are drawn. The Tea Party agenda, which is often unfairly summarized in diminished form as “smaller government and lower taxes,” actually is fighting to restore the Great American Experiment, as articulated in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, whereby the autonomy of the individual is paramount. Under the GAE, the chief job of the government is to protect the citizenry from foreign aggressors, to grease the skids of a free economy, and to allow free Americans to strive as they will, and in doing so, the government may utilize only its very few, explicitly enumerated powers, and otherwise must stay out of the way.
In contrast, the agenda of the Occupy Movement is a levelling one. The fruits of America should be distributed equitably, so that there are no longer haves and have nots. Obviously, the only entity that can accomplish this feat is a strong, all-powerful Central Authority, which can confiscate the property of the “greedy” and award it to the “deserving.” Fundamentally this means that all property, in fact, is the government’s. To the Occupy supporters, while few of them will come out and say so, the Constitution is not a sacred document, but rather is an unfortunate and obsolete impediment to progress, a document that must be undermined and replaced.
To brush off either of these movements would be a mistake. Each of them is firmly grounded in the middle class; each of them discern a fundamental problem with the American system that can no longer be ignored; and each of them have already taken to the streets demanding that solutions cannot wait, and that action must be taken now.
But the two solutions being demanded by these two movements are not merely different; they are polar opposites, and are deeply irreconcilable.
Our political leaders have likewise taken sides, and the sides being irreconcilable, we can expect no cooperation or compromise between their two camps, at least not until we have another election in which the great, seething, conflicted middle class has an opportunity to say which of the two movements they have now spawned actually holds the key to their hearts.
This is a blog about the American healthcare system, and DrRich has not been bashful about expressing his belief that Obamacare – whatever good elements it may contain – is fundamentally a vehicle for undermining the autonomy of individual Americans, and handing to the government the authority to determine who in this country will get what, when and how. Until the last few months DrRich viewed the fight over Obamacare as the proxy fight for the real, underlying, fundamental question – the question of what kind of country we will be from now on.
But between the Tea Party and the Occupy Movement, DrRich has come to believe we no longer need a proxy. It looks more and more like we will have this fight out in the open, and instead of settling it with the kind of sneaky legislative legerdemain that brought us Obamacare, perhaps it will be decided by an actual election.
But whether it is decided by an election, a coup, or an exhausted capitulation, the fate of American healthcare – and everything else American – will ride on which of these two movements eventually predominates within the middle class.
(In what has become a tradition over the past few years, DrRich proudly reprises his annual Thanksgiving message to his beloved readers.)
Gathered around the Thanksgiving table, DrRich’s large extended family, carrying out a longstanding tradition, each offered in their turn one reason for being thankful on this most reflective of American holidays. DrRich listened respectfully as each of his loved ones, and each of the ones he was obligated to tolerate benignly because they had married (or in some other manner had committed to) one of his loved ones, recounted a cause for thanks. There is no need for DrRich to recite their utterances here, because they were all perfectly predictable and fairly mundane, having mostly to do with items such as maintaining good health, finding a job, being able to afford one’s mortgage payments, getting a passing grade in French, receiving a new puppy, Mr. Obama’s remarkable Presidency, the apparent continued structural integrity of the Universe despite Mr. Obama’s Presidency, &c., &c.
When it was at last DrRich’s turn, he, in retrospect perhaps somewhat inadvisedly, was unable to refrain from displaying his keen insight and superior analytical abilities on matters related to healthcare (a topic, anyone would have to admit, about which most of us would very much like to feel thankful). Lifting his glass, DrRich pronounced that he was most deeply and humbly thankful for the 47 million Americans without health insurance; and further, especially thankful that their ranks must surely be growing, given the recession, advancing unemployment, imminent collapses of businesses and indeed entire industries, &c. And even though Obamacare promises to significantly reduce that number, DrRich went on to express his fervent wish that large numbers of the uninsured might still be with us a year and two years and even ten years hence, for the great and good benefit of us all.
Enjoying the remainder of his Thanksgiving meal out on the back porch with the new puppy, DrRich composed in his mind this explanation which you now behold for the keen appreciation he has developed for the uninsured. He now offers this explanation both to his readers, and to the few members of his extended family who, he believes, might have been inclined to hear him out, had Mrs. DrRich not offered at that moment to consider remaining married to him only if he would retire from the table immediately. (Believing his marriage to be a union sanctified in heaven, he did so.)
In any case, for those who have an open mind, there are two compelling reasons we should be thankful for the uninsured, and should be particularly loath to allow them to disappear.
The first reason is that it is largely thanks to the uninsured that we are able to maintain the fundamental and dearly-held American fiction that there need be no limits on healthcare. (The image DrRich conjures up when he says “dearly held” is that of Gollum caressing the Ring.) Simply put, when we have tens of millions of uninsured Americans who don’t have ready access to regular and routine healthcare, then it’s relatively easy to pretend that “healthcare” should include everything we might want it to include.
Our current healthcare system relies heavily on using the uninsured as a huge fiscal safety valve. That is, in lean times (such as now), we open up the valve, increasing the number of people who are ineligible to consume routine healthcare. Increasing the number of uninsured Americans has become perhaps our most effective mechanism of covert healthcare rationing.
This simple expediency alone goes a long way toward enabling us to avoid having to consider or discuss limits. Openly recognizing the unavoidable limits to healthcare, much less having to figure out how to implement such limits fairly and rationally, would be exquisitely painful and disruptive. (Just ask Gollum how unpleasant it is to be forcibly separated from that which we love and deeply value.) For helping us to avoid such pain and societal disruption, we clearly owe a great debt of thanks to our uninsured brethren.
The second reason came to light recently in an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association.* This article showed that – contrary to both popular lore and to stern pronouncements by policy experts bent on convincing us that (next to global warming) reducing the number of uninsured Americans is the most important task of mankind – the overcrowding in American emergency rooms is NOT due to the uninsured. Rather, it is due to insured Americans who cannot get in to see their primary care physicians.
DrRich has discussed at some length the primary care crisis and its causes. That is a very important topic, but it’s not the topic of this particular posting. This posting is about the great and abiding value of the uninsured.
It really should not be a great surprise that emergency room overcrowding doesn’t have all that much to do with the uninsured. While it is difficult to generalize about such things, a large proportion of the uninsured are people who have assets. (If they had no assets they likely would be eligible for Medicaid.) That is, they are people who have jobs, homes, cars, &c., but their employers (who, in many cases, are themselves) cannot afford to provide them with health insurance. The chief point being, of course, that these individuals have something to lose.
These are not the people who will voluntarily enter an emergency room for their healthcare, at least, not for a medical problem that they can somehow convince themselves might go away on its own if they give it a chance (such as, perhaps, crushing chest pain, or paralysis of the left side, or some other such eventuality which might cause some of us less circumspect, more insured people to just go ahead and dial 911, all willy-nilly). They realize that the moment they set foot into an emergency room they will generate a bill of at least several thousand dollars, which they will either have to pay, or spend months or years fighting off the increasingly aggressive bill collection professionals being dispatched these days by their local hospitals. They are putting their assets and their futures at risk if they come to the emergency room.
Rather, the overcrowding is due to people who have insurance – whether it’s Medicare, Medicaid or private insurance – and who are therefore entitled to their healthcare by whatever means they calculate is the most convenient for them. Increasingly, because primary care practices are hard to find, are booked for weeks in advance, and are less and less user-friendly by the day, the convenience calculation tends to default (incredibly) to the emergency room. (That insured people are choosing emergency rooms – notoriously one of the most unpleasant experiences American citizens can encounter in peacetime – instead of the offices of their primary care physicians should itself set off major alarms about the state of American primary care.)
This is all fairly intuitively obvious, and the JAMA article really should surprise only those who habitually believe all the prevarications being promulgated as Gospel today by politicians, media, and various authorities on healthcare.
It should be plain that suddenly providing tens of millions of Americans with health insurance will decidedly not relieve emergency room overcrowding, as the policy “experts” all promise us (the same experts, apparently, who promised us that the stimulus package would rescue the economy and prevent increased and prolonged unemployment, and who confidently spout a host of predictions which fly in the face of history, common sense, and laws of economics, physics, and human nature). On the contrary, creating tens of millions of newly insured individuals, without simultaneously revolutionizing our attitudes and policies toward primary care medicine, will quite obviously make our already overcrowded emergency rooms absolutely burst at the seams, and render even more hellish than it is today – even deeper down within “grief’s abysmal valley” – the prospect of entering such a place. Indeed, if we suddenly insure all these people, the rest of us who currently have insurance really won’t have anywhere to go to get our healthcare.
So. QED. As DrRich said at the Thanksgiving meal, thank God for the uninsured.
Clearly if DrRich had been permitted a mere five minutes to explain himself, not only might he have avoided eating runny mashed potatoes in a steady drizzle, but he also might have salvaged his reputation among some of the more remote members of his extended family, who really don’t know what a swell and reasonable guy he can be. Next year when his turn comes, DrRich will choose to be thankful for some more traditional value, in the hopes of being allowed to eat his meal in a warmer, drier, friendlier environment – perhaps he can be thankful for the growing number of obese Americans, and the great service being provided by these patriots-to-mankind as they reduce global warming.
* Newton MF, Keirns CC, Cunningham R, et al. Uninsured Adults Presenting to US Emergency Departments: Assumptions vs Data JAMA. 2008;300(16):1914-1924.
Progressive Americans have this much going for them: they can, without any reservations, second thoughts (or perhaps even first thoughts), enthusiastically and wholeheartedly support Obamacare’s individual mandate. For them, the individual mandate is an unalloyed good. Not only does it enable Obamacare to proceed, thus giving the government unprecedented control over every aspect of American healthcare, but it also establishes the authority of the government to control the economic activity of individuals. This new authority will come in very handy as our leaders continue working toward redistributive justice. So if you’re a Progressive, what’s not to like about the individual mandate?
Conservative Americans do not have it so easy. In principle, of course, the very idea of an individual mandate is constitutional heresy to a conservative, since it violates not only the letter but the very spirit of the Constitution. This is why, over the past three years, opposing the individual mandate has become for conservatives a more fundamental litmus test than opposing abortion. Accordingly, it is conservatives who have launched the constitutional challenge to the individual mandate, and who have now succeeded in bringing it before the Supreme Court, and who have based their chief strategy for bringing down Obamacare on the idea that the Supremes will agree with them about it.
DrRich, like most conservatives, is aghast at the idea that the Court might actually find the individual mandate to be compatible with the Constitution. Such an expansion of the power of the Central Authority over the lives of individuals will essentially gut the main idea behind our founding, and send us even more rapidly down the path toward tyranny.
But as he contemplates how he might feel on the day the Supreme Court finally strikes down the individual mandate, DrRich can’t help conjuring up the last scene from The Graduate. In that scene, Dustin Hoffman, who has just burst into the church and fought through a horde of wedding guests to grab his girl from the altar, and, with her in tow, has fought his way past the stunned groom and back through the angry crowd, and having at last jumped with her onto a city bus, is now sitting breathlessly, his hard-won love at his side, as the bus pulls away leaving their pursuers behind. And as that last scene fades, his look of elation at finally winning his heart’s desire gradually slackens, and transforms into a look of utter panic, a look that silently beseeches, “Now what?” Or, perhaps, “What have I done?”
DrRich thinks that’s what will happen to Republicans on the day the individual mandate is declared unconstitutional.
There is a reason, dear reader, that Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and the Heritage Foundation, all of whom claim to be conservatives, at one time or another supported something very much like Obama’s individual mandate. That reason is: it is very difficult to conceive of a workable, market-based solution to our healthcare mess without one.
Any scheme for reforming healthcare that is based on private health insurance will fail if a substantial proportion of the population declines to purchase health insurance. Whether people have chosen to acquire health insurance or not, they will still get sick. And when the uninsured get sick there are only two choices.
The first choice is to refuse them care. Libertarians have no problem with this. They believe that if you want some healthcare, you should pay for it yourself. If you choose not to buy health insurance, or otherwise fail to make arrangements to pay for healthcare should it turn out that you need some (as well you might, if you engage in all the activities and abuse all the substances that libertarians say is your right), well, that’s too bad for you. Let your painful and untimely demise serve as an object lesson to everyone else, so that perhaps they will make better personal choices. Most non-libertarians, however, find this option abhorrent.
The second choice is to take care of the uninsured anyway. If you do that, not only do you drive up the cost of health insurance for people who have chosen to buy it, but you also create a huge incentive for people to not buy it in the first place.
This is why Republicans or conservatives who have thought deeply about healthcare reform (Gingrich, the Heritage Foundation), or who have actually instituted healthcare reform (Romney), will often settle upon a solution that incorporates something very much like President Obama’s individual mandate. Unless everyone is strongly “incented” to buy health insurance, a market-based healthcare system will collapse.
More to the point, Republicans ought to recognize that, while it seems to have wound up that way, the individual mandate in Obamacare did not start out as a sneaky way to undermine the Constitution. It was, in fact, a necessary concession to the more conservative of the Democratic members of Congress. President Obama and his minions (or handlers, depending on which talk show hosts you listen to) are on record as saying that their real goal is a single-payer, government-controlled healthcare system. And there is no reason in a single-payer, government-controlled healthcare system to invoke anything like an individual mandate to purchase insurance. The President would have been quite happy without any individual mandate, if he could have gotten his way in the first place.
The individual mandate was inserted into Obamacare purely as a necessary component of healthcare reforms that are ostensibly based on private health insurance, which is the only kind of reform the President could possibly get through even a Democratic Congress in 2010.
If the Supreme Court declares the individual mandate to be constitutional (which will violate everything DrRich holds dear about America), then it’s a huge win for Obamacare.
But if they declare it unconstitutional, that will trigger the Republican’s real problems.
Republicans, Democrats and federal judges all seem to agree that without the individual mandate, Obamacare is infeasible. The moment the mandate is declared unconstitutional, Obamacare disappears.
And this will create a “Graduate” moment. There the Republicans will be, sitting on the bus with the healthcare system they have just saved from the handsome-but-arrogant groom who had Big Plans for it, and heading to – where? They can’t just go back to the old healthcare system; we’re past that. The health insurance industry has made it plain that their business model is broken, which is why they acceded to and even campaigned for Obamacare (a system under which they are to become federally-regulated public utilities) in the first place. Should Republicans institute their own market-based healthcare reforms? Good idea! But what do they do about the people who choose not to buy private insurance, now that they have had mandates to purchase declared unconstitutional? And even if they have an answer to that question (which they do not), do they have a plan ready to go, one that can be implemented quickly, before the healthcare system implodes? (Remember, Republicans, you will be dealing with a health insurance industry that has run out its string, and that will be at least angry if not panicked at the demise of its public-utility end-game.)
As it happens, DrRich himself has proposed a fix for the healthcare system that addresses all these problems – a system that is based on individual choice and incorporates private insurance, and at the same time covers everyone without any individual mandate, and controls healthcare costs to boot. The details are entirely irrelevant at the moment, and DrRich will not bore his readers with them now. (If you’re interested you can buy a copy of his book in Kindle format for five bucks, or if that’s too steep you can read an outline of his plan here for free.) The point is that workable solutions to our healthcare problems are indeed imaginable. The likes of DrRich has imagined such a thing, and so have others. But Republican candidates for President, and Republican congressional leaders, are not creating these solutions. Instead, they are steering us into a blind alley.
Here is what DrRich fears. When the individual mandate is declared unconstitutional next June, the Republican celebration will last all of 7.5 minutes. The insurance industry will make it very clear very quickly that they simply will no longer be able to function, and to have any hope of survival they will have to resume cherrypicking healthy patients, massively increasing premiums, denying recommended care, and dropping subscribers when they get sick. Even with these drastic steps, they will say, there’s no guarantee that health insurance will still be available for most Americans in a year or two. And at the time these astounding revelations are made, the Republicans won’t even be finished choosing a nominee, let alone be able to articulate a coherent plan for replacing Obamacare. By Independence Day panic will reign across the land.
The President will then make a speech. He will say, “We tried, America. In the spirit of bipartisanship we tried to give Republicans a system of market-based healthcare reforms, just like they say they wanted. But that kind of system requires an individual mandate, and our misguided friends on the right have now shot the individual mandate through the head. And when the American people ask those same Republicans who brought this disaster upon us, “Now what?” the American people get no answer. The Republicans are quite good at destroying healthcare solutions, but are hopeless when it comes to creating them. And you can hear for yourselves what the health insurers are now threatening to do to all of us when we get sick. It will be just like it was before, but much, much worse.
“We tried, America. We tried to create a market-based healthcare system that would be fair to all. But the Republicans, caring for nothing but their own selfish political fortunes, have blocked our efforts, and have left us all for dead.
“Fortunately, in a few short months you will be able to exercise your God-given right as Americans to choose. If you want to, you can vote into office the Republicans, the people who have traded your healthcare security and that of your family in favor of the chaos we are all witnessing today. Or you can re-elect me, and you can give me a Congress I can work with, and let us try to salvage something good from the ruins of the glorious reforms we fought so hard for the last time. Let us try to give you the best healthcare system that is still possible, given the new constraints the Republicans have now made for us. While you and I might not have started out wanting a healthcare system run entirely by the government, today our choice is either that, or the chaos, pain, suffering, disability and death that, thanks to the good offices of the Republicans and their friends in the health insurance industry, are now staring us in the face. But this is not the first time Americans have stared evil in the face. We have done it before, and we have always prevailed.
“We tried, America. We tried – but the Republicans denied, and babies died.
“My fellow Americans, in November you will have the opportunity to say no to the forces of evil, and to set this travesty right. I know the heart of Americans, and I know that you will do the right thing, not only for your own sake, but for the sake of your children, and your grandchildren, and generations of Americans yet unborn.*”
And when President Obama is finished laying out his argument, the Republican nominee, whoever he or she turns out to be, won’t know whether to cry, “Oops!” or “Nein, nein, nein!”
*DrRich is a conservative but also a capitalist, and so his speechwriting services are available to the highest bidder. Mr. Obama, mutual “friends” in the DOJ have proven adept at tracking DrRich down when necessary, and will know how to contact him.
A key goal of the Central Authority, as it contemplates how best to run our healthcare system, is to do whatever it can to stifle medical progress. Medical progress usually means introducing new drugs or new medical devices, which are often very expensive in themselves, and worse, which often threaten to improve the survival of some category of patients with chronic disease. So typically, medical progress greatly multiplies the costs of healthcare, and all the Central Authority gets in return is more chronically ill people to contend with. For this reason, suppressing medical progress is a critical aspect of covert healthcare rationing.
It goes without saying that a major tactic in achieving this goal is to demonize the drug companies. If the pharmaceutical industry can be made out to be sufficiently evil, corrupt, greedy, and callous to the needs of the people, then it will become the duty of our leaders to constrain them, and in so doing, to limit their ability to develop and introduce new products. This is easily done by adding daunting new regulations, or by piling on oppressive new taxes, or by legislating “windfall profits” penalties, or by using the threat of the regulatory speed trap to threaten them with massive fines or imprisonment. It is indeed fortunate for the Central Authority that the drug companies are, in fact, not the most fastidious members of the corporate community, and that their actions and methods often suggest many fruitful avenues for demonization.
One such avenue that is particularly fruitful, since it recruits the public squarely into the camp of the prosecutorial horde, is to show how the corrupt pharmaceutical industry feeds at the trough of the American taxpayer.
A few years ago, to specifically document this sort of reprehensible behavior, the New York Times pointed us to the case of Dr. Laszlo Bito and the anti-glaucoma drug Xalatan.
In the early 1980s Dr. Bito, a researcher at Columbia University, made a key discovery about a new class of substances that could potentially treat glaucoma. His research was funded with American tax dollars through the National Institutes of Health.
Subsequently, the pharmaceutical giant Pharmacia purchased the rights to Bito’s discovery for a mere $150,000. Based on Bito’s tax-supported work, eventually Pharmacia released the anti-glaucoma eyedrop preparation Xalatan. Xalatan rapidly became a worldwide best-seller, yielding as much as $500 million in sales per year. For their part in this unalloyed success story, Columbia University has netted over $20 million in licensing fees and royalties, and Bito himself became a millionaire.
Meanwhile American glaucoma sufferers are forced to spend upwards of $50 every six weeks for a tiny vial of the drug, which costs the company only a small fraction of that amount to produce, and whose discovery the glaucoma sufferers paid for with their own tax dollars. And, as if to guild this already brazen injustice, Pharmacia makes Xalatan available in Canada, France, and most other countries around the world (where taxpayers decidedly did not support the discovery of the drug), for less than half what American patients pay for it.
It seems, the Times points out, that the American taxpayers are the only parties in this little scheme who reap no financial return on their investment. All they got were some expensive eyedrops.
And so, drug-company demonizers would have us conclude, this is a particularly egregious example of how the evil pharmaceutical industry is ripping us off. Not only are the drug companies mercilessly profiteering from sick Americans (which indeed is their openly-admitted business model), but they are also picking the pocket of every American by using our tax dollars to invent new drugs, then selling those drugs back to us at exorbitant prices. This, one could reasonably argue, is at least as sociopathic as anything the tobacco companies ever did. (The tobacco companies, in contrast, at least had the good graces to eventually stop claiming that their products were beneficial to one’s health.)
And (we in the great unwashed are all supposed to agree), if this reprehensible behavior doesn’t give our government the right to control the prices charged by drug companies, one would be hard pressed to say what does.
DrRich certainly doesn’t want to absolve the pharmaceutical industry of all responsibility for drug prices that seem obviously too high, or for the striking disparities we see in the prices they charge for their drugs between the U.S. and other countries. He has read the complex justifications, published by apologists for the pharmaceutical industry, as to why drugs in Canada cost so much less than in the U.S., and why a tablet whose actual manufacturing cost is five cents is sold to our elderly sick for five dollars. DrRich thinks that, despite all the pretty explanations the pharmaceutical industry gives for these “seeming disparities,” drug companies simply do what every other industry does – they charge the highest price the market will bear, for each market in which they participate. If they didn’t do this, they would be abrogating their fiduciary responsibilities to their shareholders.
There is much not to like about high drug prices, or the fact that people in other countries reap the benefits of American research for far lower prices than Americans do. And it is reasonable for us to seek to address these pricing issues. But as we address certain inequities in drug pricing, we should be careful that in doing so we don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. So if we’re going to alter the arrangement we have with the pharmaceutical industry, let’s be clear on how that arrangement works, and why we set it up in the first place to operate as it now does.
Consider once again the glaucoma drug Xalatan, and consider how Dr. Bito’s discovery was actually used by Pharmacia.
Bito did not discover a finished product. Instead he discovered a new concept for reducing intraocular pressure (that is, for treating glaucoma), and demonstrated that it could be effective – but the specific compound he discovered was not marketable. In fact, it was so highly irritating when applied to the eye that it was simply not suitable for human use. (DrRich does not understand why the drug companies are the evil players in this story, when Columbia University so obviously allowed research to proceed in their facilities in which irritating substances were intentionally placed into the eyes of bunnies or other cute animals.) Indeed, Bito’s new compound was so impressively unusable that, before Pharmacia bought the rights, his discovery had been offered to and rejected by a host of other drug companies as being completely infeasible.
So when Pharmacia finally agreed to pay for the rights to Bito’s patent, they took on an expensive risk that, some estimated, had less than a 5% chance of achieving success. Pharmacia assumed the difficult task of developing a brand new synthetic molecule that would have all the benefits described by Bito, but at the same time would not have the prohibitive side effects. There was no assurance at all that such a molecule could ever be developed, and the cost of searching for one would dwarf the cost of purchasing Dr. Bito’s compound in the first place.
If such a thing turned out to be feasible, then the company then would have to conduct painstaking and extraordinarily expensive human research trials, and if successful, would then have to shepherd their new compound through a time-consuming and costly regulatory gauntlet – which explains why the vast majority of promising new drugs fail to ever gain FDA approval. That their efforts were ultimately successful does not diminish the fact that, when Pharmacia agreed to invest the time, money and opportunity cost to develop Dr. Bito’s discovery, the company was committing itself to an expensive and extremely risky proposition, with no assurance of making a profit or even recouping their losses. It was, in fact, a very long shot.
The folks occupying Wall Street ought to remind themselves that the cool products they are using each day (such as the iPhones they use to organize their flash demonstrations) all came about because the profit motive – and only the profit motive – encouraged some entrepreneur to risk his/her time, treasure, and sacred honor on some new idea. And for each risk-taker who becomes a millionare or billionare, thousands of others achieve only modest success – or fail altogether. (That’s why it’s called “risk.”) But the lure of big profits drives the whole system, and accounts for American progress.
Bito’s (tax supported) idea was a promising one, but the challenge of developing that idea into a product that was useful to patients and that could be brought to market was very expensive and highly risky. Pharmacia took on that risk (all of which was borne by its shareholders, and not by taxpayers) only after difficult, internal corporate soul-searching. If not for the prospect of making enormous profits if this risk worked out, the company (like several other drug companies did in this particular instance) certainly would have walked away.
Before 1980, it is likely none of this would have happened. The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 was passed expressly to encourage the further development of federally financed, university-based basic research. Until then, a large proportion of basic university research was never “translated” into useful medical products. Such translation of basic research was recognized by Congress to benefit society not only by advancing the practice of medicine, but also by stimulating the overall economy. So industry was actively encouraged to take on the risk of developing promising ideas that came out of federally-funded research. And the profit that greeted successful enterprises was designed to be the one thing that would lure industry into taking that risk.
So when the Times “discovers” a company “profiteering” from work done with tax dollars, it should not be a revelation, nor should it be an unmistakable sign that the company is inherently evil or dishonest. Nor does the company’s activity in this regard give us a justification to arbitrarily restrict its profits. Rather, that’s simply the deal we taxpayers (through our elected officials) have made with the drug industry. We made this deal because we felt it would benefit American society, the American economy, American patients, and quite probably, us as individuals. Of course, if we want to change that deal now, it is within our rights to do so.
Without Bayh-Dole, perhaps patients with glaucoma would still be getting surgical therapy and wearing those coke-bottle eyeglass lenses instead of just using eyedrops. And if we wish to allow the Central Authority to put the brakes on such medical advances (ostensibly to prevent unseemly profiteering, but actually to stifle medical progress), we certainly can. It’s how covert rationing works.
But we shouldn’t vilify the drug companies for taking us up on the deal we offered them, back when we were thinking more clearly.
Last week, President Obama took unilateral Presidential action to fix the drug shortages that have been plaguing American hospitals since 2005.
He has been taking unilateral Presidential action quite a lot lately, in his effort to publicly emphasize the recent unwillingness of Congress to do his bidding, and to illustrate to us in the great unwashed how much better things would be if only the President could just go ahead and do all the stuff that needs to be done, without having to take the legislature into account.
For problems like this (i.e., drug shortages, lack of jobs, loss of “spirit,” &c.) are the price we pay when we insist on holding our leaders to the constraints imposed by some old, dusty, outdated document, written by someone else’s ancestors. (For how many of us, really, descend from either the Roundheads or the Cavaliers who wrote the thing?)
There are other ways one might run an enterprise, you know, that Adams or Jefferson probably never thought of.
In any case it is somewhat surprising that this time the President failed to take full advantage of the occasion. Namely, he did not blame George Bush for the drug shortages. He missed a real opportunity there, because had he done so he would have been more correct than usual.
Shortages of certain critical drugs have become a serious problem over the past six years or so. Generally speaking the drug shortages have involved sterile, injectable generic drugs. Sterile injectables are relatively expensive to make, and because the requirement for sterility dictates they must have a finite (and relatively short) shelf life, they are relatively expensive to manage logistically after they are made.
The shortages are in some of the more important and critical drugs used in medicine, including “crash cart” cardiovascular drugs, antibiotics, and important chemotherapy agents used for cancer. In recent years increasing numbers of patients with life-threatening illnesses have not been able to receive the drugs they need to optimize their odds of survival, and they have had to receive some substitute therapy, that is, instead of getting the drug they ought to have, they get a drug that is available. When your life is in the balance this is not a pleasant thing.
The FDA keeps an on-line list of current drug shortages, which can be found here. The list is impressively long.
Many experts (the usual suspects) have looked into the problem of drug shortages, and have come up with many explanations for it. Typically, after analysis, the reason for the shortages is said to be “multifactorial,” and includes: insufficient production space, disruptions in the supply of raw materials, several drug makers opting out of the generic drug business, and a spate of manufacturing quality issues that have resulted in prolonged production interruptions. The term “drug company greed” often hovers just beneath the surface of such explanations, and sometimes actually breaches.
Here is the formal position the FDA has taken to explain the growing drug shortages. Readers will note that it invokes all of the above multifactorials. (And since none of these manifold causes are under the direct control of the FDA, the agency concludes, clearly it is not to blame.)
This sort of scattershot explanation for the drug shortages seems unsatisfying. It seems unfocused and random. We are to believe that a series of disparate, unfortunate events suddenly began happening to the drug industry six years ago (since prior to that there was no particular problem with these drugs), with no underlying explanation, and that all these unwanted happenstances, quite miraculously, mainly affected only one kind of product – sterile, injectable generic medications. Go Figure.
Must be one of those Black Swan deals.
Undeterred by the lack of a unifying theory to explain the problem, the President has now taken action.
He decreed the following steps. He told the FDA to ask drug companies for earlier notice when there will be a new shortage. He asked the FDA, after the agency has ordered a halt in production of a drug due to quality issues, to speed up its reviews when the drug company says it is ready to get back on line. And he asked the DOJ to crack down on “grey markets” that have now appeared to provide these critical drugs to hospitals for exorbitant prices.
See what kind of quick action we would get if we would just suspend the Constitution?
The problem is that the things the President is doing won’t help much, and the things that would help a lot the President is not doing.
It should not be this difficult to figure out why we are having drug shortages. Yes, DrRich agrees that the proximate reasons are multifactorial. But the proximate reasons for product shortages are always multifactorial, because when the root cause of a shortage is itself beyond their control, the product-makers will always try multiple, marginally effective and often counterproductive ways to mitigate the root cause, thus creating a multitude of potential proximate causes for problems. And if an analyst does not look beyond those proximate causes he might not see the root. This often happens when seeing the root would be inconvenient or embarrassing.
The root cause of any persistent product shortage is almost always the same. For one reason or another, the cost of providing the product has outstripped the price the product-maker can get for selling the finished product.
In a free market, when the cost of production goes up the price of the finished product rises accordingly. As long as the customers can pay the higher price there will be no shortage of the product. If the price rises so high that customers won’t pay it, the demand for the product drops – and production is adjusted to reduce the supply in accordance with that reduced demand. But even in this case, there is no product shortage, because even if more product were available nobody would buy it.
Sometimes a sudden increase in demand for a product will create a product shortage. But the higher prices enabled by this new demand will entice the product-makers (greedy bastards!) to increase their manufacturing capacities, and will attract new product-makers to go into business, and eventually the shortage will be resolved. In free markets, shortages are usually temporary and self-adjusting.
In general, truly persistent shortages will only occur when the product-makers cannot increase the price they get for their finished product sufficiently to keep up with a rising cost of production. In this case profit margins shrink or even become negative, and the incentive to expand production, or even to stay in that business, disappears. This is a true shortage – the demand is still there, and customers are willing and able to pay the price being asked, but the product-makers are no longer able to supply the product at that price. Unless the mismatch between the cost of production and the price of the finished product is repaired, the product shortage becomes persistent or even permanent.
Such a persistent cost/price mismatch does not occur in a free market. It occurs when some Central Authority acts to control prices (often, to be sure, while simultaneously acting to increase the cost of production). A Central Authority can cap effective price a product-maker can get for his/her product by implementing overt or hidden price controls; by increasing marginal tax rates high enough to push the product-maker’s risk/reward calculation to favor inaction; and by instituting windfall profit taxes that do the same thing. DrRich is certain that Progressives have thought up a number of other ways to bolix-up the supply/demand relationship as well.
We do not need to know anything in particular about manufacturing generic, sterile injectable drugs to know that it is very likely that the persistent shortages we are seeing in these products are probably due to a persistent, externally-imposed mismatch between the cost of production, and the prices the companies can get for selling these drugs. And whatever caused that mismatch must have occurred before 2005.
And lo and behold! We find that a recent Medicare law (Section 303(c) of the Medicare Modernization Act of 2003) strictly limits the price Medicare will pay for “injectable” generic drugs. Prices for these drugs can still rise, but only by 6% or less, and only once every six months. Congress (in its great wisdom and expertise in matters economic) made the judgment that this kind of price rise would be sufficient to balance market forces. But Congress was wrong.
This law took effect January 1, 2005.
The margins companies get for generic drugs are already low. And the cost of making (and managing the distribution of) sterile, injectable drugs is inherently higher than for most generic drugs. So the profit margins for these drugs, already low, was severely challenged by these new price controls.
The industry reacted quite rationally and predictably to this new law. The big companies, which could maximize their profits by devoting their manufacturing space to other products, got out. And new, generic drug companies got in. These generic drug companies do not have to bear the cost of research and development, so their overall cost of production is substantially lower than for the big companies – their business models indicated they could pull a reasonable profit even with the price controls, if all went well. But to do so, they had to employ cheaper manufacturing processes, with less quality control and less production redundancy. So, quite predictably, there were quality issues, and when these issues occurred there was no redundant production capacity available to pick up the slack. And stringent new FDA standards meant that each time such an issue occurred, their production would be off-line for months, or even a year or longer.
But for DrRich to belabor the story from this point would only be to elaborate on the multitude of proximate causes for the drug shortages, all of which are merely artifacts of the ways the industry chose to respond to the root cause – i.e., to government-imposed price controls.
The President’s executive order ostensibly aimed at fixing the drug shortages will of course be ineffectual. While it implies new regulatory zeal which will further increase the cost of production and worsen the cost/price mismatch, it does not acknowledge let alone address the root cause.
In this light, the President’s attitude toward the grey market that has sprung up in response to the drug shortages is particularly instructive. A grey market, as DrRich understands it, is like a black market but less illegal. And we know a lot about black markets.
A black market acts outside the legal economy to provide customers with products they cannot get within the legal economy. The price a black market dealer gets for the product simply reflects current market forces, given the product shortages which exist within the legal economy, the risk the black marketeer takes in providing the product extra-legally, the additional “security” they require, &c. So the customer pays through the nose, but at least he can get the product he wants or needs.
The very presence of grey/black markets generally indicates that the shortages which are present within the legal economy are not inherent but artificial – that is, the products are demonstrably available, for the right price. That product’s abundance would increase and the price would adjust to some more reasonable value if only the customer were permitted to pay what the market will bear. (The true free-market price for any black market product will always be far higher than the legal economy allows, but far lower than the black market demands.)
Fulminating about the greed of the grey marketeers does not hide this truth.
No wonder the President’s new decree attempts to convert the grey market for sterile injectables into a true black market, and in this way aims to snuff out this extremely embarrassing, all-too revealing, spectacle.
DrRich does not like to pick on the New York Times.
No, really. DrRich does not like to pick on the New York Times, because he receives two paychecks each month from the New York Times*. This fact (which has been disclosed on this blog since its inception in 2007) constitutes a clear conflict of interest, at least when it comes to writing blog posts which might criticize or satirize or mock articles that appear in that venerable publication, from which he receives a not insubstantial proportion of his livelihood.
*DrRich holds two positions at About.com, which is a New York Times Company. He has manged About.com’s Heart Health Center for 11 years, and also serves on About.com’s Medical Review Board.
Yet, regular readers will know that the New York Times has served as a regular source of material for DrRich here at the CRB, and little of what he has written in response to that material has been supportive of it. Indeed, the opposite is true.
DrRich considers it his duty to respond to the New York Times whenever it publishes an article that advances the covert rationing of American healthcare, which (through no fault of his), it does frequently. The New York Times serves as a chief voice of Progressive America, and the Progressive takeover of the healthcare system has become, since this blog was first begun, the chief driver of covert rationing. So, conflicts of interest to the contrary notwithstanding, DrRich submits to his readers that he has acted responsibly and honorably despite his unfortunate financial conflicts.
But still, he does not like to pick on the New York Times.
It is unfortunate for DrRich, then, that for the second time this week he is compelled to do so. And this time, as it happens, the subject matter has to do with conflicts of interest (a subject about which, as he has just disclosed once again, DrRich knows something).
Today, the Times writes that experts are beginning to worry that the GOD Panels (Government Operatives Deliberating) now working to devise the clinical guidelines under which American doctors will be strictly compelled, under penalty of the law, to decide which patients will get what, when and how, are tainted by members who have had ties to (gasp!) industry.
When the GOD Panels were first set up, not very long ago, it was still considered acceptable for some members to have industry ties as long as they fully disclosed those ties, and recused themselves from voting on matters specifically related to their industry work. Having at least some members with industry ties was deemed essentially unavoidable, because it was thought that deep subject-matter expertise would be desirable on these panels. Since most clinical research in America is paid for by industry, it is difficult to have deep expertise without having had at least some contact with industry.
But as the Times indicates, modern medical ethics has now advanced well past this kind of primitive thinking. Nobody with any industry ties has any business being on a panel with such overwhelming authority over the practice of American medicine.
David J. Rothman, president of the Institute on Medicine as a Profession, tells the Times, “Consciously or not, they may well be making decisions that fit their funders, their payers and not the patient’s best interests. If you want the public to really believe in the guidelines, why not have a committee that is conflict-free?”
And the ubiquitous Dr. Steven Nissen of the Cleveland Clinic (a person DrRich numbers among those individuals who, by their public words and deeds, he speculates may be auditioning for the really important GOD Panels) says, “Recusing, disclosing — the reason it doesn’t work is the process involves give-and-take. Even if you don’t make a formal vote, you can still have a huge influence over what happens in the process.”
And so, while the Times does not come out and say so, it seems as if a purge of the GOD panelists may be already afoot. If not an actual purge, then at least the “conflicted” panel members are being sent a clear message, well before they take any final action. And at the very least, Ms. Sebelius is being given the cover she needs to select the people she really wants for the truly important GOD Panels which are being constructed for Obamacare.
All of this is pretty clear, and DrRich has great confidence that his readers can figure it out for themselves.
What DrRich really hopes to accomplish here is to note for posterity the great paradigm shift that has occurred in just the last two or three years, regarding the appropriate relationship between physicians and industry.
Until very recently, the American public, doctors, industry, and medical ethicists thought about that relationship in a certain way, which DrRich will call Theory A:
- Medical progress is Good, and benefits mankind.
- Industry is responsible for a high proportion of medical progress.
- Industry-driven progress requires the active participation of physicians.
- Therefore, a well-managed cooperation between industry and physicians is beneficial to mankind, and ought to be encouraged.
If you subscribe to Theory A you believe that, because well-managed physician-industry relationships benefit mankind, these relationships are good. So, fundamentally, it’s the management of these relationships which is at issue. These beneficial relationships produce unavoidable conflicts of interest, which we must manage by strictly limiting their extent, and fully disclosing the ones that are left.
So traditionally, the debate about conflicts of interest have been about where to draw the necessary limits.
What today’s New York Times article points out is that Theory A is no longer operative. The new thinking begins with the proposition that no amount of conflict of interest is acceptable, and ALL physician-industry ties should be prohibited. One of the most prominent advocates of this new thinking is Jerome Kassirer, former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, who says, “The ideal handling of conflicts of interest is not to have them at all.” For these voices, Theory A simply does not apply. Rather, they subscribe to Theory B:
- The greed of medical industry creates excessive costs, and produces far more harm to society than good.
- Physician-industry alliances strengthen industry, and increase the harm.
- Therefore, crippling these unholy alliances is critical to the interests of society.
Underlying Theory B, of course, is the largely unspoken and unacknowledged, but nonetheless fully-embraced, proposition that medical progress is not Good after all, but is the very thing that is driving up our healthcare costs, and so it must be stifled.
A corollary of Theory B is that not only is the Central Authority the only entity which is strong enough to cripple these unholy alliances between physicians and industry, but it is the duty of the Central Authority to do so.
Proponents of Theory B, noting, not incorrectly, that medical industry is chiefly concerned with profits rather than the public good, conclude (in a manner compatible with Progressive if not classical logic) that therefore industry will always behave in ways that are counter to the interests of society. While many proponents of Theory B will agree that industry provides at least some benefits, they are convinced that these benefits are far outweighed by the harm they produce to the collective. Therefore, Theory B proposes to stifle, if not cripple, medical industry. And a very useful strategy for achieving this goal is to de-legitimize any practical relationships whatsoever between medical industry and physicians.
Proponents of Theory B rarely say what their real goal is. To come out and say that their goal is to cripple the companies responsible for producing medical progress would not be expedient. So most of them still give lip service to Theory A. One must discern their real motives from their behavior.
Much of that behavior, in practical terms, has to do with controlling the flow of information. Let industry develop whatever it wants (perhaps), but don’t let profit-drunk industry – or its greedy physician spokespersons – instruct doctors and patients on who ought to use industry’s products, or when and how. That kind of information can only be managed by unbiased sources.
This is the very thinking that produces the impetus for GOD Panels in the first place. Only experts who are free of industry ties and who answer only to our beneficent, unbiased, completely objective government can say which products of industry are good and bad, and can manage the flow of information about them. Information coming from anywhere else is to be regarded as being charged with bias and greed, and should be ignored, or even suppressed by whatever means are necessary.
To any reader who believes that our government is or can ever be an unbiased and honest broker, or that government officials (or GOD panelists) can cancel their own human natures when they put on a government name tag, DrRich can only wish upon you the grace of God (the old fashioned one). You’ll be needing it. To the rest of us, it is obvious that the government is desperately biased when it comes to medical progress in general, and in particular when it comes to establishing “guidelines” for the use of expensive drugs and medical devices.
For Theory B to have become the operative paradigm in America, as the New York Times today suggests it has, will assure the Central Authority that it is free to seed its GOD Panels only with members whose bias runs in their direction.
But under Theory B there is no government bias. There is only industry bias. And when we purge the GOD Panels of all industry bias, by definition we will have created perfect objectivity.
And this is why DrRich feels so comfortable continuing to write this blog despite his obvious financial conflict of interest in favor of the Times. For a conflict of interest in the direction of the Progressive agenda is no conflict at all.