Column, 284 words

The Real Drug Racket

Some Big Pharma wiseguys cornered the market on life-saving heart drugs and immediately jacked up the price.

Jim Hightower

Al Capone, the infamous mob boss and bootlegger in Chicagoland during the 1920s, always maintained that he was just a businessman.

The only difference between him and others, he insisted, was that the law criminalized his business while legalizing the criminality of so-called “legitimate” businessmen.

Of course, big business bosses today would find their comparison to mob bosses distasteful. Yet it’s not that far from a true fit for many of their corporate “enterprises.” After all, we regularly see shameless racketeering schemes from the establishment peers of Wall Street, Big Oil, Big Food, etc.

Then there are the Big Pharma wiseguys. Their business model is based on legalized price gouging.

On February 10, for example, Valeant Pharmaceuticals stunned heart patients, doctors, and hospitals by suddenly jacking up the price of two essential life-saving heart drugs. Valeant tripled the price of a single vial of Nitropress, from $260 to more than $800, while sextupling the price of Isuprel from $215 a vial to over $1,300.

Money and Medicine

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Had the drugmaker improved the medicines? No, they were exactly the same formulations as before.

The only thing that changed was ownership: Valeant had bought the rights to the medications from another company on the very day if its announcement. It arbitrarily used its monopoly control to exact a rip-off price from those who have no choice but to pay it.

A spokeswoman for Valeant was unrepentant: “Our duty is to our shareholders and to maximize the value” of their investments, she declared.

By “duty,” the lady from Valeant didn’t mean a moral duty, but a “duty” manufactured by corporate lawyers and lobbyists to extract profits from vulnerable people.

Al Capone would approve of that business model.

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OtherWords columnist Jim Hightower is a radio commentator, writer, and public speaker. He’s also editor of the populist newsletter, The Hightower LowdownOtherWords.org.