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Big Pharma Feels the Bern

The entities that are really getting rich off the commons are the corporations and corporate executives.

Big Pharma is getting rich off the commons, while putting the health of vulnerable people at risk. (Photo: Steve Smith / Flickr)

Ever since Reagan, conservatives have been telling us about “welfare queens.”

The way they put it, there are thousands of undeserving poor people in this country right now bilking taxpayers for all they’re worth, all while you and I are sweating out a hard day’s work.

And here’s the thing: conservatives are right.

There are a lot of undeserving people getting rich off the commons and the working class.

But they don’t fit the racist and classist stereotypes of popular conservative mythology — far from it.

See more news and opinion from Thom Hartmann at Truthout here.

The entities that are really getting rich off the commons are the corporations and corporate executives who, with the help of sellout Republicans, have turned our economy and tax system into their very own get-rich-quick scheme.

Case in point: Big Pharma.

While big drug companies like to talk about how cutting-edge they are, they really don’t do very much innovation at all.

They leave that to taxpayer-funded government scientists.

As a recent piece in the Los Angeles Times pointed out, “75% of so-called new molecular entities with priority rating (the most innovative drugs) trace their existence to NIH funding [the National Institutes of Health], while companies spend more on ‘me too’ drugs (slight variations of existing ones.)”

And, while there is a strong argument to be made against private corporations getting a free ride off taxpayer-funded research, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this situation.

This is what governments do and have been doing for much of the last century — they fill in the holes in the marketplace and create incentive structures that wouldn’t otherwise exist.

But what makes Big Pharma’s dependence on public research so offensive is the fact it uses that public research to manufacture drugs that it then sells at absurdly high and often unaffordable prices.

And that’s not even the worst part.

After these giant drug companies make all that money from selling drugs invented by taxpayer-funded research, they then stash that money overseas to avoid paying taxes on it.

In other words, instead of paying taxpayers back for helping them get rich, pharmaceutical companies rip them off.

According to Senator Bernie Sanders, one of the worst offenders is Gilead Sciences, which sells a drug called Sovaldi.

Developed in large part through taxpayer subsidies to a much smaller drug company that Gilead later bought out, Sovaldi treats Hepatitis C.

It’s also one of the most expensive drugs around. One pill costs an eye-popping $1,000 and a full treatment costs around $84,000.

Although this is great news for Gilead’s profits, it’s very, very bad news for Hepatitis C patients — the people who actually need Sovaldi to survive.

As Senators Sanders points out in a new editorial about this very issue, “Patients with hepatitis C are often low-income and a disproportionate number of them are veterans. Yet many Medicaid programs have had to limit access to the drug, and despite spending literally billions of dollars on the new hepatitis C drugs, the Department of Veterans Affairs initially struggled to provide the medication to every veteran who needed it.”

The fact that people are struggling to get the medicine they need because some Big Pharma executive wants to buy a new yacht is bad enough, but as Sanders goes on to point out, what’s really obnoxious about Gilead is that, like many other pharmaceutical companies, it’s a serial tax dodger.

Sanders notes that new studies show that Gilead has skipped out on paying as much as $10 billion in taxes.

How is that possible!?

It’s possible because the American tax system is one big Swiss cheese wedge of loopholes and carve-outs, especially if you’re a big corporation.

The big picture here is outrageous.