Yager: Drug industry needs reform

The state of the pharmaceutical industry is flawed. Let me rephrase: The pharmaceutical industry, and from it the health care system, is flawed.

I don't mean that it is flawed in the sense that it is killing people or committing crimes, so to speak, but rather that the current system in place for regulating ownership of pharmaceuticals is not ideal for our society.

The pharmaceutical industry is one of the largest industries in the nation, expected to gain revenue of over $300 billion this year. From Singulair to Plavix, Cymbalta to Viagra, most of America's frequently used pharmaceutical drugs are still patented to the company that discovered them. However, this prolonged ownership – typically 12 years in the U.S. – can have dire side effects for those in need.

Let's take a class of drugs called anti-retroviral drugs. Anti-retrovirals are used primarily to prevent the infection of a virus, most notably HIV. HIV, the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, can eventually become AIDS and has killed over 25 million people since its discovery in 1981.

Current estimations predict that over 2.6 million people will be infected with HIV this year. In America, however, the cost of anti-viral drugs is astronomical. According to a report by CBS, the initial cost of HIV treatment starts around $2,100 per month and increases to $4,700 per month in the late stages of the disease. Given an added average lifespan of 24 years on medications, any given American HIV patient will spend $618,900 by the time of his or her death due to the disease.

How is this acceptable? These companies are, quite literally, benefiting off the pain, suffering and death of other human beings. That is, however, the nature of the game when it comes to corporate needs. A 2006 study by Van Brantner and Christopher Adams suggests that the cost of developing a medication is between $500 million and $2 billion. On the surface that looks like a lot.

When looked at more closely, however, pharmaceutical companies stand to make a combined $40 billion profit each year. When I add those numbers up, I do not see a rationale for letting people die. Even more interestingly, I wonder how many people could live better lives if big pharmaceuticals ignored $5 billion in revenue and gave $5 billion worth of prescriptions away for free.

Sadly, the thinking that large multinational companies are in any way concerned about the people forced to buy their products is absurd. They have no reason to care about those that depend on them; their only loyalty is to the stockholders and their bank accounts.

With that said, I firmly believe that the only useful course of action would be for the government to reform current patent law to reduce the number of years that a prescription drug is patented from 12 years, down to six years. The corporations will complain that doing so will destroy their business practices and put them out of business for good, but something tells me that even $20 billion dollars should suffice, particularly if there are more living people to buy their drugs.