Does the upcoming U.S. election matter to the cause of access to medicines?
The correct answer is “Yes, but . . .”
The answer is yes, because the U.S. President and members of Congress are enormously influential on access to medicines policy. Clearly, this is true in the U.S., with the prospect of potential changes in 2017 to Medicare drug pricing and discounts to governments on drugs discovered with taxpayer dollars.
Who we elect in the U.S. also has enormous global impact, with the U.S. acting as the driver of the corporate monopoly-protecting trade agreements that have proven to be so harmful to persons in need medicines all around the world.
Some candidates and elected officials are clearly better choices for medicines access than others. Big Pharma knows that. A recent study by Public Citizen showed that U.S. representatives who sided with pharma on a Medicare drug pricing struggle received 82% more in campaign contributions from the pharma and health products industry than those who opposed the corporate agenda. A North Carolina senator who is a reliable pharma supporter has received over $1 million from the industry in his reelection bid.
The election is even more important for voters in California, because their Proposition 61 referendum, which I wrote about in detail here, could have a big impact on the medicines access struggle. The direct cost effects of the ballot measure are not yet clear, but its very passage could reveal the Achilles heel of the pharma industry: its deep unpopularity makes it a liability for elected officials to continue to support corporate profiteering on lifesaving medicines.
Yet there is a “but”: These or any other elections are not the critical stage in the struggle for access to medicines.
It is beyond naïve to think that electing one candidate or another, for President much less a lower-ranking office, will automatically lead to change. Many of us were euphoric over Barack Obama’s 2008 election, and remain appreciative of many of his accomplishments. But his administration is considered by some experts to have been a more aggressive defender of medicine monopolies in global settings than even the Republican administrations that preceded him.
That is a disturbing but telling example of how the enormous influence of the pharmaceutical industry is not limited to one party. Although Republicans are the chief beneficiaries of pharma campaign contributions and Democrat presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has issued strong words about the need for medicine pricing reform, she has also collected more pharma-connected campaign donations than any other Presidential candidate this cycle.
And the first President Clinton administration was so supportive of medicine monopolies that it pursued trade pressure and even legal action against nations like South Africa and Brazil that dared to pursue generic HIV/AIDS medicines to treat their dying millions. One illustration of the tight connection between the administration and Big Pharma: the brother of Clinton chief of staff John Podesta, who is now chair of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, was a drug industry lobbyist.
The first President Clinton was absolutely horrible on the issue of medicines access. Until he wasn’t.
And that is the lesson for those of us concerned about access to medicines. Bill Clinton’s administration turned around on HIV/AIDS medicine access because spirited, grassroots advocacy forced him to do it.
Even if we feel a candidate will be sympathetic to the issue of medicine access, they will receive enormous pressure to keep the toxic status quo in place. So we must be mindful of the famous words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt when activists described their antipoverty agenda to him: “You’ve convinced me,” President Roosevelt said. “Now go out and make me do it.”
By all means, we should vote for candidates who promise to increase access to lifesaving medicines, and fix our broken system. But, the day after the election, we need to get to work making them do it.
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