03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Protecting Pharmaceutical Profits: The Cost Is Human Lives

The public option has received the lion's share of attention in the health care debate, but there is an equally important issue relating to generic drugs that could mean innovative, lifesaving drugs remain too expensive for all but the wealthy.

Biologics are drugs made from living organisms, and they are considered the miracle drugs of the future. They are the new "blockbuster" drugs for the pharmaceutical industry. Herceptin, for breast cancer, costs $48,000 a year, and many insurance companies won't cover it -- or people quickly hit their limits and must pay for it out-of-pocket or go without.

Embrel and Remicade, for rheumitoid arthritis, Rituxan, for Non-Hodgkin's lymphpoma, Avasta, for metastatic colorectal cancer, Lantus, for diabetes, and Avonex, for multiple sclerosis, are just a few of these biologics. When I was on chemotheraphy, I took Neulasta to boost my white blood cell count and keep my immune system going.

I spoke with Dr. Anthony D. So, the Director of the Program on Global Health and Technology Access at Duke University. While at the Rockefeller Foundation's Health Equity program, he played a key role in fighting for fairer intellectual property rights to make HIV/AIDS drugs available worldwide. He says that if an AIDS vaccine were developed, it would also be a biologic. And under the Eshoo/Barton amendment that passed in the House (Hagen/Enzi/Hatch in the Senate), it could "evergreen" and not be sold in generic form -- virtually forever.

Pharmaceutical companies are trying to use health care reform to make sure these drugs never become "generics," and thus stay extremely profitable. No surprise there.

But young medical and public health students across the country feel their hands are being tied as healers of the future, and they are coming out in protest. Eric Butter, a biostatistics major at UNC, led one of many such protests around the country last week.

"It is a really important issue that might not affect us now, but 10 years down the road it will be huge," Butter said.

Laura Musselwhite, a medical student at Duke University and a member of the American Medical Students Association, writes:

Earlier this year, as a medical student at Duke University, I saw a patient with Crohn's disease, an inflammatory intestinal disease associated with substantial disability and mortality that affects more than 500,000 individuals nationwide. This patient required hospitalization for a flare that she attributed to not being able to afford the month's Humira, a biologic medicine used to treat severe, active Crohn's disease.

The drug is priced by Abbott Laboratories at a staggering $22,000 a year. This patient would clearly have benefited from the availability of an affordable, generic version.

Current biologics proposals, as they stand, will undermine one of the primary objectives of health care reform -- to limit costs -- by in many instances creating almost indefinite monopolies. This will cost billions of dollars and more important, will leave expensive medicines unaffordable to the vast majority of Americans.

That's just wrong. POP is working with artists to make the case for health care as a human right, and will also be joining with these students to help them fight for affordable drug prices. These inspirational young people who want to heal the world shouldn't have their hands tied by protectionist legislation that puts corporate profits over access to health care.

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