Special interest money is real drug problem

Posted: Wednesday, December 20, 2000

Americans pay up to twice as much for the same drugs sold in other countries, including Canada.

Fourteen million seniors have no drug coverage, and millions more have lousy coverage.

Meanwhile, according to Public Citizen, the drug industry spends $15 million every election, and another $150 million every two years, lobbying Congress to protect its incredibly high profit rate, which is three times that of all other industries.

So if we want greater access to more affordable drugs, we're also going to have to change the way campaigns are financed.

Here's one fresh, bipartisan, example of the problem: An unknown member of the Senate quietly placed a provision seeking to extend Schering-Plough's monopoly patent on the anti-allergy drug Claritin into a Military Construction Appropriations bill. Sales of Claritin hit $2.7 billion in 1999. But this lucrative haul is due to end in 2002, when Schering-Plough's patent is due to expire. Hence the company's extensive efforts to buy itself a pass from Congress.

Schering-Plough's PAC and top executives have already contributed significantly more money to federal candidates and parties in the current election cycle than they did in all of 1997-98 -- $617,000 as compared with $492,000, according to the Center of Responsive Politics. Nearly three-quarters goes to Republicans. The company has also more than doubled its lobbying expenditures from 1998 to 1999, according to its disclosure reports.

A lot is at stake, and not just for Schering-Plough's profit margin. Generic drug manufacturers expect to be able to sell Claritin for 80 percent less than Schering-Plough. At more than a dollar a pill, this is nothing to sneeze at.

Good-old-fashioned sleuthing by the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call eventually discovered the author of the mysterious patent extension provision: Senate Judiciary chair Orrin Hatch (R-Ut.).

Hatch towers above all other members of the Senate as a friend of the pharmaceutical and biotech industries. According to a new study just released by Public Citizen, he has received $341,863 in PAC and individual contributions from these companies since 1993, almost twice as much as Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) the industry's second-biggest recipient of campaign funds. For the last six years, Schering-Plough ranks as Hatch's seventh biggest individual contributor, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

But it's important to note that the Claritin monopolists have friends on both sides of the aisle.

Last year, Senator Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) introduced legislation that would have extended patents for several drug-makers, including Schering-Plough. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which Torricelli chairs, received a $50,000 check from Schering-Plough just days afterward. Since 1995, the company has been Torricelli's third biggest contributor, according to the Center of Responsive Politics.

Ellen Miller is executive director of Public Campaign, a Washington D.C.-based nonpartisan, nonprofit organization devoted to comprehensive campaign finance reform.

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