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Body Politic #8: Big Pharma and public health insurance—too close for comfort

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When was the last time you called Bayer or GlaxoSmithKline up for a chat about your prescription regime?

Never, right? Doctors are our go-between, the ones who prescribe and manage our health, who pay attention to developments in pharmaceuticals, and we generally have to trust them to know what we need. While many provinces are increasingly giving power to pharmacists to renew and consult on prescription drugs, we’re mostly at the mercy of the GP.

But should we cut the distance between us and our drugs? If we’re locavores in the sense of what we ingest food-wise (how many times have you heard the virtues on consulting your local farmer?), why not go right to the source for our pills too. Sure, they’re not always made in our backyard, but no one knows better what goes into our drugs than the makers.

Of course, this will never happen. Big Pharma wants to sell us what they’re developing, not always what we need. But the Canadian Medical Association has an idea that might bring us closer—or, rather, bring drug makers and medical insurance companies closer.

The piece quotes Bob Nakagawa, an assistant deputy minister of pharmaceutical services in British Columbia:

Payers like the BC government “want to see innovative products for significant health care gaps… we are more and more squeezed to live within the allocation government provides us…. We want a return on investment in terms of health outcomes and a sustainable model.”

So the report suggests the drug makers and government medical plans work together on developing and prescribing pharmaceutical treatments. This way, pharmaceutical companies would spend their time developing drugs that we actually take.

But while it might seem advantageous to pair insurance and Big Pharma in theory, I’m skeptical about the effect on the patient. While most of us know that some GP’s are influenced by sponsorship and speaking deals, what happens when those who approve or deny our coverage stick their hands in the pot?

If this idea were to catch, instead of tempering the development of unnecessary drugs, we’d just see more options available to us. And in health care, more is not always better. While governments say they would be able to influence pharma company research, I fear it’s most likely to go the other way. We’d have more options, more prescriptions and we’d continue to be an over-prescribed and medicated culture. We need regulations, not partnerships.

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