Highway Robbery Without A Gun

by James Longo

July 1, 2002


I went down to the local chain pharmacy to fill a prescription for a common antibiotic. The price for the six pills was $51. I approached the pharmacist behind the counter.

"This is highway robbery. Come on, man. What gives? How can they charge so much for so little?"

With an emphatic smile, he said. "It's simple; they can."

"This is an absurdity, six pills, fifty one dollars that's eight fifty a tablet. The government should do something about this."

His smile broadened even more. "The pharmaceutical companies have already bought and paid for the people in power."

"How's that?"

"The pharmaceutical industry spent close to seventy million dollars between 1990 and 2000 in campaign contributions; never mind what they did last year and this year. They spent sixty-five million dollars last year alone to lobby Congress. In the last ten years the average price of a prescription has gone from $23.68 to $49.84. Rising at over 10% a year for the last ten years, while the total inflation rate was closer to 3%."

"Are you trying to tell me, the reason my six tablets cost so much is due to our nation's lack of campaign finance reform?"

"Partially; the politicians listen closer to groups that give them money, and even closer still to groups that give them lots of money. The pharmaceutical corporations have the ear of our government and what they are saying in that ear is, let the law of supply and demand for drugs determine the price."

"Sounds great. What's wrong with the law and supply and demand?"

"Nothing, except buying a prescription is not like any other purchase anyone makes."

"How's that?"

"For starters, did you decide to take this medicine or did someone else decide for you?"

"My doctor decided which medicine would be best for my condition."

"And is he paying for your medicine?"

"Of course not."

"Just by letting the doctor decide what medicine he wants to use, we have altered the law of supply and demand."

"Give me a break. How much can that alter the law of supply and demand?"

"Do you think the doctor knows how much those six tablets cost? Do you think he cares? The pharmaceutical representative comes in and tells him the benefits of their new, best product. Cost isn't important to the doctor, getting you well is, and rightfully so."

"Is this the only way the law of supply and demand is altered?"

"No, over 70% of my patients now have prescription benefits from an insurance company. Now we have taken demand further away from the ultimate consumer. Seventy percent of the people that come into my store don't care what the price of their medicine is. Because they aren't paying for it directly."

"What do you mean by 'directly'?"

"The insurance company pays for the medicine and the consumer pays through the premiums. Seventy percent of my customers don't feel the bite of the high cost of medicine. At least not till their insurance rates go up."

"So what came first, prescription insurance or the high price of prescriptions?"

"No one knows, they have been going down the primrose path of profiteering together for about ten years."

"Let me get this straight, the reason these six tablets cost so much is because the law of supply and demand has been skewed by doctors prescribing habits, and insurance companies insulating the consumer from the price of drugs, and the greed of the pharmaceutical companies."

"That and the unwillingness of the politicians to bite the hands that pay them."

"Let me just pay for my medicine and get out of here. This whole experience makes me nauseous."

"We have medicine for that too."

"I bet you do."

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James Longo is a registered pharmacist, graduate of Northeastern University in Boston. He has practiced retail pharmacy for twenty years. He is currently writing a novel about a man who has stopped taking his medicine and who is trying to change the world. Jim Longo has traveled to six of the seven continents, all fifty states and all the Canadian provinces. He has bicycled from Key West to Canada and all but five hundred miles of the United States east to west. He has also hiked extensively in the Rockies and two hundred and thirty miles of the Appalachian Trail. This is Longo's first contribution to Swans.

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Published July 1, 2002
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