Racial Health Disparities Are Fueled by Big Pharma’s Patent Monopolies [Op-Ed]

By u200bu200bu200bu200bu200bu200bu200bMaurice BP-Weeks Aug 21, 2020

We’re still in the thick of a global pandemic, and racial disparities in our healthcare system have never been more apparent. Usually, when we talk about the high cost of health care, we focus on the greedy executives behind our for-profit insurance system. But there’s another insidious factor at play that we must expose: big pharma’s drug pricing. 

To dismantle racism in our healthcare system, we must address outrageous drug pricing by pharmaceutical companies, which is extracting health and wealth from Black and Brown folks. We must hold Wall Street and elected leaders accountable, and work to undo the systems that allow them to exploit our communities. 
rnTime after time, Black and Brown people pay the price—either with our lives or through pain and suffering—because of systemic racial discrimination and the continued extraction of dollars from us. Nothing illustrates this truth more than COVID-19, which has been killing Black, Latinx and Indigenous people disproportionately because of  lack of access to healthcare, safe housing and overrepresentation in what is now recognized as “essential work.”

As researchers race to find potential cures for COVID-19, it’s already becoming clear that yet again, only certain people will have access to them. Before it even hits the market, Gilead Science set a heinous price for proposed COVID-19 treatment Remdesivir—over $3,000 per patient. This is just one example of the myriad of life-saving medication which Black and Brown people are denied via pricing.

 A new report, “Poi$on,” shows that Black folks have twice the rate of hypertension, and twice the mortality rate for diabetes compared to white people. Additionally, Latinx people also have twice the rate of diabetes and are more likely to experience preventable diabetes-related kidney failure and vision loss. 

On top of this already glaring health disparity, the report finds that Black and Latinx people are more likely to ration medication due to cost, which causes a slew of other issues including heart disease, strokes, and kidney disease. Often, diabetic patients who ration medication have to undergo amputations that are completely preventable with reliable access to affordable medication, leading to what ProPublica has deemed an “epidemic of amputations” in Black communities.

The high cost of medication is not a coincidence. It’s the result of pharmaceutical companies having total control over their pricing. Of course, in the capitalist hellscape we live in, they always choose to put profits over people without oversight from our government. 

“Poi$on” also finds that there are some clearly identifiable bad actors here. Eli Lilly hiked the price of its insulin, Humalog, 30 times in just 20 years, including a 585 percent increase between 2001 and 2005. After buying the patent rights to two blood pressure drugs, Nitropress and Isuprel, Valeant Pharmaceutical immediately raised their prices by 212 percent and 525 percent, respectively. A Valeant spokesperson referred to its duty to “maximize the value” for shareholders as justification for this egregious and arbitrary leap in price. 

If it seems bananas that they’re able to do this, it is. The reason why? These pharmaceutical corporations have the authority to monopolize patents, and then do everything they can to abuse them. With no oversight on drug pricing, greedy pharma executives can gouge prices on a whim, willfully killing countless Black and Brown people in the name of profit. 

On top of abusing an already corrupt patent system, pharmaceutical companies assemble tangled webs of intellectual property protection that stifle truly innovative medical research, while keeping already hyper-inflated drug prices high.

It hasn’t always been this way. Patent monopolies giving pharmaceutical companies control over pricing weren’t introduced until the 1960s, when right-wingers worked to empower corporations and wealthy investors by weakening public-sector regulations and consumer protections. 

These days, the excuse for the high prices of drugs is attributed to innovation or keeping the market competitive. But the truth is that government-funded research has always been the backbone of medical breakthroughs—pharmaceutical companies profit by buying the patents and monopolizing public knowledge.

Luckily, there are some clear solutions. 

First, and most urgently, our elected officials must ensure medications and vaccines for COVID-19 are offered free of charge. Second, the Department of Health and Human Services must designate systemic racism as a public health emergency, and issue reparations for past harms from the pharmaceutical industry. Third, the federal government must impose compulsory licensing to prevent further abuse of patents by big pharmaceutical companies that lead to monopoly and price gouging. And finally, we must push for measurable steps toward strengthening the public’s ownership of medicine.

While everyone deserves access to free, comprehensive healthcare, including medication, the reality is that Black and Latinx communities are being torn apart by the pharmaceutical industry’s insistence on the greedy exploitation of our communities. Congress must step in with bold action plans. Our lives, quite literally, depend on it. 

Maurice BP-Weeks is the Co-Executive Director of the Action Center on Race and the Economy. He works with community organizations and labor unions on campaigns to go on offense against Wall Street to beat back their destruction of communities of color.