How to Control Drug Costs, Simply

People hate pharmaceutical companies almost as much as they love their products. They demand inexpensive drugs but want drugmakers to keep spending big on research. It's a conundrum--one made worse by aging baby boomers, calls for an expensive universal Medicare drug benefit, and pleas from the Third World for cheap generics. What to do?

A new look at the debate over the soaring cost of drugs reveals a surprising number of solutions. They require a modicum of medical reform, personal self-discipline, government action, and industry competition. They don't require capping drug company profits, ending the patent system, or anything quite so drastic. Here's what should be done:

-- Get smart. For every dollar the country spends on drugs, it wastes another dollar fixing medical problems caused by those same drugs. Doctors and hospitals are prescribing the wrong drugs to many, and too many drugs to others. Harmful side effects and drug interactions cost $150 billion each year to cure--enough to pay for a Medicare drug benefit.

-- Get fit. The sharp rise in drug spending is not being fueled by the cancer or AIDS drugs used by a relatively small percentage of the population but by cholesterol-lowering heart medications, psychiatric drugs, and painkillers used by tens of millions of people. Exercise and a good diet can help reduce heart disease, diabetes, anxiety, and some pain.

-- Get tough. Pharmaceutical companies are gaming the patent system to stymie competition. Current law compels the Food & Drug Administration to freeze generic versions of drugs for 30 months if a drug company complains that the generic infringes on its patent. Two and a half years is a ridiculous wait; it should be shortened to three months.

-- Get honest. Pharmaceutical company advertising on TV promotes high-priced new drugs with marginal improvements over cheaper generic versions. The FDA should crack down harder on misleading ads.

Despite its drug-price problem, the U.S. still spends less on medicine per person than most of Europe. There are plausible solutions to America's complex drug-pricing problem. It's time for the country to embrace them.

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