Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Your Life or Money

The power of money continues to astound me.  Profits have a perverse pull on all business, but in the pharmaceutical industry, the pull can affect life or death situations.

Case in point: This past Monday evening on the NBC newscast, they reported a story about a shortage of an anti-cancer drug called methotrexate.  The Huffington Post has also reported on it here.  Now, this drug has other uses, for rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis for example, but it's primarily a strong anti-cancer drug.  It works by preventing the metabolism of cells which is effective against disease with abnormal rapid cell growth like cancer.  As an older drug, it's now sold in generic form which is less expensive and less profitable for drug companies to manufacture.  The drug companies prefer to focus their manufacturing energy on drugs that will bring them a healthy profit.

Who isn't for a healthy profit?  Well, maybe the children who have a of leukemia that's easily treatable with methotrexate which can result in cures.  Without treatment, these kids' prognosis is not positive, to put it mildly.  Pediatric cancer patients are not the only cancer patients feeling this shortage. Oncologists also use methotrexate to treat breast and lung cancer.  Insurance companies love methotrexate because it's a generic and it's cheap, and they're also concerned about their bottom lines. 

In a Capitalist economic system, profit is good.  As Gordon Gecko so famously said in the movie Wall Street, "Greed is good."  When are profit and greed not good in a Capitalist economic system?  Is it possible to have a moral economic system?

What I don't understand is this: if the drug companies who make methotrexate already have manufacturing facilities producing the drug, and they have other facilities producing other drugs, why it's not possible to do both.  Why have the drug companies decided it's not a both-and situation but an either-or?  I can understand a company in another industry, say tires, deciding to phase out an older model tire in order to ramp up production on a newer model they're selling for more.  It makes sense to stop producing the product that's cheaper in favor of the more expensive one, from the manufacturer's point of view.  Cars, electronics, furniture, and clothes have all succumbed at one time or another to this way of thinking without much complaint from consumers.  

But...a drug that can save lives, that has no ready substitute, but happens to be generic and cheap?  Should that drug be dropped in favor of manufacturing one that isn't generic and isn't cheap?  At what point do we choose life over money?  It's possible to have both, you know.

For full disclosure, I have psoriasis for which I take the oral pill form of methotrexate.  I have used the liquid injectable form in the past, and it is the liquid form that is in short supply right now.  Hospitals and cancer clinics use the liquid form for cancer treatment.  I hope that drug companies in this country and around the world will continue to produce their drugs, especially those for which there is nothing better, and choose to save lives over increasing profit.  


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