Sen. Tillis should fight for public health, not his Big Pharma donors’ profits

Sen. Thom Tillis

As North Carolina’s attention has been focused on containing the coronavirus spread, a new report disclosed that Sen. Thom Tillis ranked first in Congress for 2019 campaign donations from political action committees tied to drug corporations.

In normal times, these revelations would be shameful – though, sadly, not surprising. But in our new context where almost 50,000 Americans have now died from COVID 19, these contributions may be downright dangerous. Pharma’s lobby and PAC donations to Senator Tillis and other lawmakers may have an impact on whether a future treatment for the pandemic will be affordable and accessible to everyone who needs it.

It’s no accident that drug corporations chose Sen. Tillis for over $150,000 in donations in just one year. Sen. Tillis is chairman of a little known Congressional subcommittee that sets policies on patents and trademarks that Big Pharma companies depend on to block competitors and exert monopoly control over drug pricing.

Exclusive patents and licenses for brand name drugs enable drug corporations to set high launch prices and to keep those prices as high as they want, making the drug industry more profitable than just about any other. Big Pharma’s price-gouging on insulin is one of the best-known examples. About 13% of adult North Carolinians need insulin to regulate their diabetes. Thanks to monopoly control of the drug, pharmaceutical corporations tripled the cost of insulin over ten years, leaving one in four Americans rationing a medicine that’s been around for nearly a hundred years.

Sen. Tillis actually wrote a bill to give drug corporations even more monopoly power to raise prices – a move that unleashed Big Pharma’s tidal wave of campaign cash. Only one other Senator, Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, received more money from drug manufacturers than Tillis. It’s hardly a surprise then, that neither one of them supports popular reforms to lower drug prices like allowing Medicare to negotiate for lower drug prices.

But that’s not the only reason the prescription drug industry funnels donations to Tillis. He also voted for President Trump’s 2017 tax law, which gave drug corporations over $8 billion in tax breaks despite their persistent price-gouging of patients. Tillis’ vote rewards price-gouging with tax giveaways, forcing patients to pay drug companies twice.

Not only are we paying for the drug industry’s tax breaks, marketing and CEO bonuses, but also we’re being overcharged for medicines they develop with our own taxpayer dollars. That’s true not just for common medicines like insulin, Epi-Pens and antibiotics, but it’s particularly true for  coronavirus treatments and vaccines currently in development.  

Health and Human Services’ Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority announced last month that it will pay Regeneron, a biomedical company with the highest-paid CEO in the entire pharmaceutical industry, to develop an experimental treatment for the new coronavirus. The federal government will fund 80% of coronavirus research, development and manufacturing costs for promising treatments, but there’s no guarantee that any of them will be affordable because Sen. Tillis, his congressional colleagues, and President Trump’s administration refuse to curb monopoly power. As long as the drug corporations can set prices, we’re not likely to see lower costs.

Anyone who holds out hope that pharmaceutical corporations may make medicines affordable without intervention from lawmakers should consider Gilead Sciences’ recent money-grabbing behavior. When reports surfaced that the anti-viral drug remdesivir showed promise in treating COVID-19, the drug maker used a little-known loophole to secure special tax breaks and a seven-year monopoly for the drug. Following widespread condemnation of its attempted profiteering, Gilead tried to avert a snowballing PR disaster by withdrawing its request.

Similarly, New Jersey-based Rising Pharmaceuticals, doubled the price of its chloroquine, an anti-malarial drug that has been touted by some as another potential treatment for COVID-19. When exposed, Rising quickly backtracked and shamelessly attempted to spin its lowering prices as an act of compassion.

The COVID-19 pandemic reminds us that we are more connected than ever in today’s world. Infectious disease anywhere can turn into calamity everywhere. North Carolina’s failure to expand Medicaid and ensure that all our residents can get access to prevention and treatment leaves us more vulnerable to the crisis, but so do elected officials who listen more to their donors than to their constituents.

Unless we hold elected leaders accountable, we can expect that Senator Tills will continue to prioritize Pharma’s profits over public health.

Margarida Jorge is Director of Lower Drug Prices Now, a national coalition of nearly 60 social, racial and economic justice organizations with members in all 50 states.

Co-author Pat McCoy is the Executive Director of Action NC, a grassroots membership organization based in North Carolina that advocates for affordable and equitable health care policies. 

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