Date: July 1st, 2000
Congress is trying to repair a 35-year-old shortcoming in the nation's most important health care program for seniors. If they succeed, people on Medicare will have help paying for prescription drugs. It may be the most important action that members of Congress take before they fold their tents and leave Washington this fall.
But there are many ways to provide a Medicare drug benefit, and some may do more harm than good. Some of the proposals circling Capitol Hill come with heavy-handed price controls that threaten to pull the rug out from under medical research aimed at improving the lives of aging Americans.
The pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries are designing and testing new drugs that can better treat diseases of aging - heart disease, cancer, and arthritis, to name a few. They make a huge financial investment, spending more than 15 years and up to $500 million for the research and development to bring a single drug from the laboratory bench to the bedside. To make this investment, they need to see a strong market for their product. If they are limited in how they can price their drugs for older people, they might likely turn toward less risky markets where they know they'll recoup their investments.
History shows us that the risk of damage from price controls is real. Every year since 1980, investments by pharmaceutical companies on research and development rose by double digits, except in 1994 and 1995, just after the Clinton health care reform plan proposed price controls on prescription drugs.
Now is not the time to put the brakes on medical research. There are more than 350 biotechnology drugs and vaccines already in human clinical trials and hundreds more in early development in the United States. These include medicines are being tested to decrease the risk of blindness in diabetics and improve memory in patients with Alzheimer's disease, among many others.
By 2001, scientists will have a complete map of the human genome. This blueprint of our genetic code will open the door to development of new, more targeted drugs aimed at the causes of disease rather than the symptoms. And scientists are making exciting strides with stem cells -- the master cells from the body that can mature into any cell necessary -- to begin finding the answers to curing illnesses like Parkinson's disease, diabetes, and many more.
Let's not let heavy-handed price controls turn the much-welcomed Medicare drug benefit into a program we can't live with. Tell your Congressperson that access to drugs is important for older Americans, but it should not come at the expense of the biomedical research needed to develop better treatments and desperately needed cures.