A previous blog post summed up some of the disastrous consequences of the Affordable Care Act, more commonly known as Obamacare. Now that socialized healthcare dominated by the pharmaceutical industry has become the norm in the developed world, it seems many people find it hard to recognize how the free market might be able to take better care of the sick than the system we currently live under – though it could hardly get any worse than this.
The health crisis is probably most pronounced in the United States, where half of all Americans take at least one prescription drug per month including one out of every five children ages 11 or younger and nine out of every ten American seniors. Of those seniors, almost 40 percent uses five or more prescription drugs a month. A lifetime of pharmaceutical drugs takes one from asthma medicines in childhood to central nervous system stimulants in adolescent years, to antidepressants for middle-aged adults, and tops it off with some cholesterol lowering and blood pressure drugs in the last decades of one’s life – possibly coupled with chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. In 2008 over $234 billion was spent on prescription drugs in the United States alone.
It’s been more than four decades since U.S. President Richard Nixon declared war on cancer and signed the National Cancer Act. What has happened since then unfortunately is a prime example of what tends to happen when a war is declared on something; poverty in the United States is on the rise despite (or because?) the war on poverty, the drug war has led to a seemingly ever-increasing death toll and the global war on terror is encouraging more extremism with international terrorist attacks quadrupling since 9/11. It appears as though declaring war on something with the aim of eradicating it is much more likely to achieve the opposite effect.
So it is with the war on cancer. Before doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, it would be a good idea to reflect on the road thus far traveled. Cancer cases and deaths continue to rise while no real progress has been made in the scientific realm in nearly half a century. The staggering amount of money – close to $100 billion in the U.S. alone – that has poured into cancer research during that time has yet to offer cancer patients real alternatives to surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, which may prolong lives in some, at the risk of sustaining tumor growth and resistance to further treatment. Any business venture with hundreds of billions of dollars to invest in R&D and no significant improvements after several decades of research would undoubtedly be deemed an epic failure. The so-called “search for the (cancer) cure”, on the other hand, somehow escapes any and every level of public scrutiny. You might think that is not a coincidence. You would be right.
As it turns out, the pharmaceutical industry spends more money influencing lawmakers than any other industry. Hence the nickname “Big Pharma”, and the reason I speak of a state-granted monopoly. The answer, therefore, will never come from the elected “representatives” lining their pockets with the bribes of the industry they are supposed to regulate. Besides, if Big Pharma genuinely had the best treatment options for the sick, why would it be the top industry in lobbying spending?
The sad truth of the matter is that the system is set up so that the most profitable people are sick people, not healthy people. In other words, the best-case scenario for the industry is a population of perpetually sick people, just healthy enough to live at least past their seventies yet miserable and incentivized enough to take pharmaceutical drugs to carry them through the day until the day they die. In addition, the more side effects said drug produces the better, as that might induce the patient to pop more pills to counteract those effects. The average physician, who likely went to a medical school (partly) funded by the same pharmaceutical giants, just does not know any better.
As astonishing as this information may seem to those new to it, I have barely scratched the surface here. Still, it should be easy to recognize the problems inherent in our healthcare system as it exists today, as well as the fact that it is not going to be fixed from the top down.
Keep an eye out for my next blog post for suggestions on how we might see disease management turn into actual healthcare.