Stop Blaming Capitalism For Drug Price Increases

EpiPen has made headlines recently, putting pharmaceutical prices at the top of the political agenda. When Martin Shkreli hiked the price of Daraprim, progressives were outraged. “Capitalism is evil” was the leftist battle cry.

Now, with EpiPen raising its prices, progressive hero Bernie Sanders has criticized the company for valuing profits over people. Hillary Clinton, who comes off as a lifeless and heartless reptilian, even released a statement condemning the price increase.

But does the EpiPen and Shkreli scandal prove that capitalism is destroying our health care system? Ironically, it proves the opposite.

In my first day of introductory microeconomics, the teacher said that greed is never the problem. Whether our government is small or large, socialistic or anarchistic, tyrannical or benevolent, people are always as self interested as they always have been. Of course, we aren’t reptilian beings (like Hillary Clinton), and some individuals do have altruistic streaks. But, the simple fact is, humans usually look out for themselves (and those close to them) over a random person off of the street.

What really makes greed a good thing or a bad thing, the professor said, was institutions. In a world where the government is small and protects us from others–not ourselves–greed works out pretty well. In a world where there is stable money, freedom to trade, and a rule of law, greed works out great.

And we see this with drug prices. The problem is not that EpiPen is greedy or that Shkreli wants to make an extra buck; the problem is that the government has bad institutions–bad policies–that have constricted competition and made it easier for these individuals to hike prices.

A new article in the Wall Street Journal lays it out pretty clearly:

In a health care system notoriously resistant to cost-containment, generic drugs are an exception. Americans enjoy a huge range of generic medicines at-ever declining prices, largely thanks to robust competition among multiple manufacturers.

In 1984, the Waxman-Hatch Act slashed the regulatory hurdles for generic copies of patented drugs. Since then, generics have risen from 19% to 84% of all prescriptions. Their prices have fallen 70% over the past eight years, while branded prices have risen 164%, according to Express Scripts, a pharmacy benefit manager.

The main driver of those price declines is competition. A 2010 study found that within three years of the first generic launch, the average generic has 12 competing suppliers and its price has fallen 94%.

In the generic world of prescriptions, prices have fallen dramatically because of free market competition. The WSJ accompanied this article with the following graph:

Indeed, the generic market has a lot of competition and lower prices. The brand name market has no competition and thus has rising prices. Why is there no competition?

In large part due to the government. We have very strict approval rules, which makes it hard for generics to become commonplace. This is why many economists, like Alex Tabarrok, support reciprocity. What is reciprocity? According to Tabarrok, reciprocity is “if a drug is approved in Europe it ought to be approved here. … [all reciprocity does is allow the importation] of any generic approved as such in Europe to be sold in the United States.”

Essentially, he wants free trade in the realm of drugs to make it easier for more generics to enter the market more quickly, which forces both domestic and brand name medicines competing in the same market to slash costs. Reciprocity would dramatically reduce costs. In fact, Senators Ted Cruz and Mike Lee have been proponents of reciprocity for a long time now.

Of course, we shouldn’t allow reciprocity with every nation. I don’t trust the Chineese or Somalian approval process, for example. But we should make reciprocity agreements–like trade agreements–with nations who have a proven track record of approving safe drugs (e.g. Most of Western Europe, Canada, Australia, Japan, Korea, etc.)

Essentially, if you want lower drug prices, support more competition. The reason EpiPen and Daraprim cost so much is because they have no competitors, which makes it easy to hike the price with no consequences. Induce competition–in other words, let the market work–and drug prices will fall.

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