Hasan Minhaj on drug pricing extortion

I only got around to watching last Sunday’s show Patriot Act yesterday and it was another excellent one. This time he took on the high drug prices that people in the US pay, much higher than in other countries, that often results in people not being able to afford drugs to live. Rather than give a generalized critique, he used as a case study the price of insulin (a drug that so many people need to just stay alive) to show how three big drug companies Eli Lilly, Novo Nordisk, and Sanofi, that market drugs under a multiplicity of names, have formed essentially a drug cartel that keep raising prices together and also exploit patent laws (they own the majority of them) to prevent cheaper drugs entering the market.

Nearly 50% of the US population takes some prescription drugs so this is a major issue that concerns a lot of people. You would think that this would result in some action. The US Congress does have powers at its disposal that could stop this kind of extortion but they don’t because they get so much money from the drug lobbies. He shows how the drug manufacturers, the insurance companies, Congress, and companies that retail the drugs all collude to keep the system opaque so that no is quite sure whom to blame for this disgrace and thus each can evade responsibility.

Remember Martin Shkreli the obnoxious person who bought rights to a drug and them promptly raised the price of it by 5000% simply because he could, and later said that his only regret was that he did not raise it even more? In March 2018 he was sentenced to seven years in prison for securities fraud and reportedly cried at his sentencing hearing, though I don’t buy for one minute that his tears were genuine. Shkreli caught people’s attention because he was so smug and gloatingly egregious in his price gouging. But what the other drug companies do is not much different except that they do things discreetly and have friends in high places.

Minhaj and John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight are reinventing in-depth investigative journalism, using humor to bring important subjects to the public’s attention in ways that are easy to understand. They are reaching a much more diverse and younger demographic than old policy wonks like me and that is really important. I am glad that they are releasing much of their content on YouTube so that it gets wider coverage.


  1. DavidinOz says

    The main reason that after years of negotiation, New Zealand & uStates still don’t have an FTA is NZ’s refusal to give up Pharmac.

    Pharmac runs tenders for drug supplies for the Nation, distributes to Pharmacies, and those drugs are then dispensed with the pharmacist receiving a fee of $NZ5.00 per prescription. Each prescription is for a 3 month supply. Figures may have changed, as this was the situation when I left NZ in 2013.

    Even with the “socialised medicine” in Australia, I pay from $6.00 to $35.00 per prescription, depending on the drug, and each is for a single month’s supply.

  2. Steve from Canada says

    Americans should be embarrassed, but for some reason defend the way their system works… I guess they really do get what they vote for.

  3. Owlmirror says

    In March 2018 he was sentenced to seven years in prison for securities fraud and reportedly cried at his sentencing hearing, though I don’t buy for one minute that his tears were genuine.

    I’m pretty sure that any tears he cried at his sentencing were genuine.

    Self-pity is the most sincere form of pity.

  4. jrkrideau says

    @ Mano
    For some reason that I forget, I googled something about insulin prices and tripped over long discussions among US insulin buyers wanting to know about buying insulin in Canada.

    One person was even doing a kind of travelogue describing buy insulin in various cities and provinces to considerable applause and interested questions.

    I at one point got sidetracked into a subthread about epipens.

    In both cases the price differences were significant, sometimes shockingly so.

    I am pretty sure that we don’t have the cheapest prescription drugs in the world. The US must be a total ripoff.

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