Is Congress Capable of Standing
Up to the Drug Companies?

In the United States today, millions of Americans are unable to afford the high cost of medicine and, as a result, many are suffering and even dying. The high cost of prescription drugs is now one of the major health care crises facing this country. As medical therapy becomes more and more dependent upon drugs, large numbers of Americans are simply not able to afford the treatments their doctors prescribe, and are doing without.

Out of desperation, thousands of American citizens are fleeing across the Canadian and Mexican borders to purchase US-manufactured prescription drugs at significantly lower prices than they pay at home. On a trip that I took to Montreal with a busload of Vermonters, women who were struggling with breast cancer were able to purchase the widely prescribed breast cancer drug tamoxifen at one-tenth the price they paid in the United States. But it's not just Canada. For every dollar an American spends on prescription drugs a consumer spends 65 cents in Switzerland, 60 cents in Germany, 51 cents in France and 49 cents in Italy -- for the same exact drugs. Americans pay, by far, the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs and new studies show that the gap between drug prices in the United States and the rest of the world is growing wider.

While sick and elderly Americans struggle to come up with money to buy the highest priced medicine in the world the pharmaceutical industry remains, year after year, the most profitable industry in this country. In the year 2000, earning over $26 billion in profits, the pharmaceutical industry's profit margins were nearly four times the average of Fortune 500 companies.

While sick Americans get sicker because they can't afford medicine, the drug companies use their huge profits to provide obscenely large compensation packages to their top executives and to make sure that Congress takes no action which will lower prescription drug costs or their profits. In the year 2000, the CEO of Bristol-Myers-Squibb had unexercised stock options of $227 million; the head of Merck and Co. held over $181 million and the chairman of Pfizer had over $130 million. According to a recent study by Families USA the 25 drug company executives with the largest value of unexercised stock options held a combined total of almost $1.6 billion in 2000. The drug companies also provide huge salaries to their top leadership with the average and median compensation, exclusive of unexercised stock options, at almost $19 million.

How does it happen that year after year -- despite public outrage at high drug prices -- Congress does nothing? The answer is not hard to understand. The drug companies are the most powerful and well-funded political force in Washington. Over the last three years alone they have spent more than $200 million in campaign contributions, lobbying and political advertising. Committee chairmen who oversee bills important to the drug companies find themselves with tens of thousands in campaign contributions. On the other hand, drug company opponents are hit with full-page newspaper ads and deceptive television spots.

What the American people must understand is that the pharmaceutical industry NEVER LOSES. They are the Rocky Marciano of the Washington Beltway. After dozens of battles over the years, they are undefeated. In the United States today, alone among industrialized countries, the drug companies can charge any price they want for their product -- no matter what the consequence. In addition, they receive billions of dollars of financial assistance from US taxpayers for research and development, as well as huge special interest tax breaks.

And today, as Congress debates prescription drug reform legislation, they are at it again. Some of us have the "radical" idea that, in an increasingly globalized economy where food products are imported from almost every country on earth, prescription drug distributors and pharmacists should be able to purchase, under strict FDA safety approval standards, lower-priced prescription drugs from Canada, Europe and other countries. It has been estimated that the passage of "reimportation," which will break the pharmaceutical industry's monopoly over bringing medicines back into the US, will reduce the cost of prescription drugs in this country by 30-50%, and make our prices comparable to those in the rest of the world. As a representative of the pharmaceutical industry recently said the drug companies are going "to war" against this concept. In fact, they are going "to war" against any and all serious approaches that could bring down the price of medicine in this country.

The only antidote to the drug companies' stranglehold on Washington is a massive outpouring from the American people that demands that Congress acts, and acts now to lower prescription drug costs. While it is true that the hundreds of well-paid pharmaceutical lobbyists in Washington have enormous clout, an aroused American public has even more power. Together, let us demand a significant lowering of the cost of prescription drugs in this country. Let us demand that Congress summon the courage to stand up to the most powerful special interest in Washington. (For more information on the pharmaceutical industry and drug prices, please visit my website at

US Rep. Bernie Sanders is an independent from Vermont. Phone (202) 225-4115; email

Home Page

News | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2001 The Progressive Populist