Column: While decrying ‘socialized medicine,’ Trump spends billions on COVID drugs
In his second and final debate with Democratic challenger Joe Biden, President Trump once again bemoaned the prospect of “socialized medicine,” a theme he’s sounded repeatedly in trying to scare voters into thinking a government takeover of the U.S. healthcare system is imminent if he isn’t reelected.
That’s not something Biden or any other prominent Democrat is calling for, so Trump’s warnings are just another example of his dishonesty and fearmongering.
And, it turns out, his hypocrisy.
On Wednesday, the Trump administration announced it will spend $375 million in taxpayer funds to purchase 300,000 doses of an experimental coronavirus antibody drug from pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly & Co.
The deal also gives the government an option to spend more than $812 million for an additional 650,000 doses.
“This agreement with Eli Lilly is part of Operation Warp Speed’s efforts to position the federal government to distribute potential therapeutics, allowing faster distribution if trials are successful,” said Alex Azar, Trump’s secretary of Health and Human Services.
“More good news about COVID-19 therapeutics is constantly emerging,” he declared, “and the Trump administration’s commitment to supporting potentially lifesaving therapeutics will help deliver these products to American patients without a day’s delay.”
Just a few things to consider here.
This pledge of $375 million in government funding comes days after Lilly said it was ending a study of the new drug after “trial data” revealed the drug, bamlanivimab, “is unlikely to help hospitalized COVID-19 patients recover from this advanced stage of their disease.”
You read that right. It may not work.
Other studies are pending. Lilly says the drug may be more effective the earlier the virus is treated, rather than by the time a patient is hospitalized.
In any case, Trump is already spending a ton of your money to buy it.
Moreover, Azar, the member of the Trump administration who engineered the $375-million purchase from Lilly, is — wait for it — a former top Lilly exec.
Pandemic, meet swamp.
But the broader issue of a government role in healthcare R&D is an important one. Clearly there’s a need for the government to be active in ensuring the well-being of society.
“The role of the government here is to fix a market failure,” said Scott Barkowski, a healthcare economist at Clemson University.
“Vaccines generally aren’t profitable,” he told me. “That’s part of why there are few companies that produce vaccines for the USA. The government can step in in that situation and help induce more production by helping support fundamental scientific research.”
That’s a valid function for our government or any government.
In fact, the U.S. National Institutes of Health has pumped roughly $900 billion into drug research since the 1930s, according to Gerald Posner, author of “Pharma: Greed, Lies and the Poisoning of America.”
The advocacy group Patients for Affordable Drugs estimates that every drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration from 2010 to 2016 “was based on some element of science funded by taxpayers.”
Xi Chen, an associate professor of public health at Yale University, pointed out that while drug companies focus their R&D investment on “more profitable” medicines, government funds are typically used for “basic research.”
“The higher risk and lower return to investing in basic science of new therapeutics normally determines underinvestment in such public goods in absence of significant public funding,” he told me.
The U.S. government has allocated more than $20 billion so far toward research for a COVID-19 vaccine and related treatments, as well as assistance to other nations waging their own fights against the virus.
In Lilly’s case, the commitment to purchase 300,000 doses of bamlanivimab, which is similar to one of the drugs Trump received while hospitalized with COVID-19, includes a provision that consumers won’t have to pay out of pocket for the treatment, estimated to cost about $1,250 per dose.
However, you may still have to pay for the drug to be administered by a doctor or nurse. The availability of bamlanivimab is contingent on Lilly receiving an emergency-use authorization from the FDA.
Again, this is a prudent use of taxpayer funds amid the worst public-health crisis in generations, even if not all drugs being funded prove effective in treating COVID-19 (and even if our health secretary is steering piles of cash to his former employer).
If nothing else, this public windfall for the private pharmaceutical industry should put to rest nonsense claims that “socialized medicine” is a catastrophe to be avoided at all costs.
Medicare, Medicaid, veterans’ assistance, programs for healthy kids — these are all examples of socialized medicine, and somehow we’ve avoided turning into the Soviet Union.
“When people are afraid of socialized medicine, I’d like to know what they fear,” said Jeffrey Hoch, a professor of health policy and management at UC Davis.
“There is a long history of using the market to try to solve healthcare problems, and then using the government when the market fails,” he observed.
Indeed, government spending on healthcare has repeatedly proved to be an indispensable social good, a necessary backstop for the limits of a profit-focused private sector.
The only debate we should be having is how much of a role we want the government to play in this regard. Do we want it to be all-encompassing, as in Britain, or do we want the government to work in tandem with private industry, as in Germany?
But to dismiss any government role in healthcare, as conservatives seem obsessed with doing, is both bad public policy and a reflection of breathtaking ignorance about the current status quo.
If there’s a workable vaccine for COVID-19 or an effective therapeutic treatment, make no mistake: You’ll have paid for it.
Because the private marketplace so cherished by some simply wasn’t up to the challenge, and it never will be.
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