|Pharma-funded "patient" groups keep drug prices astronomical.
It happens with regularity during citizen open-mike sessions at FDA drug advisory committee hearings. A queue of “patients” materializes out of nowhere to testify, often in tears, about the crucial need for a new drug or new use approval. Some are flown in by Pharma. It can’t be a generic drug, the “patients” cry, because they are just not the same. It has to be the $1000-a-month drug or even the $1000-a-pill drug, so that taxpayers and the privately insured prop up Pharma’s cred on Wall Street.
More than 80 percent of patient groups are Pharma-funded, the New York Times reported this week, including the National Hemophilia Foundation, the American Diabetes Association and the National Psoriasis Foundation. But the most insidious are the mental health front groups like the National Alliance for Mental Health (NAMI) and Mental Health America.
Not only do psychiatric drugs represent four digit outlays per month per patient, and sometimes much more, patients are kept on them for decades or for life, with few medical attempts to determine if patients still need them or ever needed them. Side effects of the drug cocktails are viewed, thanks to Pharma spin, as confirmation of the “mental illness,” not the side effects they almost always are. The use of such drugs in the elderly, despite their links to death in those with dementia, has become epidemic and is an underreported cause of falls.
“Mental illness” is a category deliberately “grown” by Pharma with aggressive and unethical million-dollar campaigns. These campaigns, often unbranded to look like a public service, convince people with real life challenges they are “depressed” or “bipolar” and that their children have ADHD. Despite the Pharma marketing, the New England Journal of Medicine recently reported that the rate of severe mental illness among children and adolescents has actually dropped dramatically in the past generation.
The tactics of these front groups have been widely reported.
“When insurers balk at reimbursing patients for new prescription medications, these groups typically swing into action, rallying sufferers to appear before public and consumer panels, contact lawmakers, and provide media outlets a human face to attach to a cause," reported the Los Angeles Times.
Targeting poor people on government health plans is Pharma’s marketing plan.
“For years, the alliance [NAMI] has fought states’ legislative efforts to limit doctors’ freedom to prescribe drugs, no matter how expensive, to treat mental illness in patients who rely on government health care programs like Medicaid, says the New York Times. “Some of these medicines routinely top the list of the most expensive drugs that states buy for their poorest patients.”
Thanks to the Sunshine Act, which is part of the Affordable Care Act, it is possible to see what Big Pharma is paying patient front groups—and the numbers are astounding. Last year Eli Lilly, one of the primary makers of psychiatric drugs, bestowed an astonishing 22 grants on NAMI including $25,000 for its “Healthy Americas Briefings.”
How objective are those “briefings”? Pfizer gave NAMI $32,500 during one quarter last year.
Lilly also greased the palms of Mental Health America to the tune of $35,000 last year. Government is increasingly funding Mental Health America, adding to the Pharma exploitation and heisting of our tax dollars. Last year, Counterpunch reported that Walgreens had announced a partnership with Mental Health America. The plan empowered Walgreens to “screen” customers to see if they might need expensive psychiatric drugs but not know it—until Pharma magnanimously told them.
Screening is widely viewed, even by the medical establishment, as shameless Pharma marketing that leads to over-diagnosis, over-treatment and over-medication even as people who actually need medical treatment are ignored.
The Pharma business model actually wants people sick. Currently, in radio campaigns, Pharma is trying to convince people they have "exocrine pancreatic insufficiency" and “Non-24 Sleep Wake Disorder,” two conditions so rare as to be laughable as radio campaigns.
How much do the drugs Pharma, NAMI, Mental Health America and Walgreens push cost? If a “bipolar” child is prescribed a middle dose of the mood stabilizers Topamax and Lamictal, the yearly cost would be $23,220. If Seroquel is added, at a cost of $24,000, along with the ADHD drug Concerta at $7,812, and Neurontin at $4,860, one bipolar child would make Pharma $59,892 a year. Remember, you can’t substitute a generic.
Martha Rosenberg is an investigative health reporter and the author of "Born With a Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp the Public Health (Random House)."