Reforming Healthcare & Taking On Big Pharma: An E-Interview & Reader Q&A with S.J. Robinson

Former nurse and retired attorney S.J. Robinson, author of The Price of Death, has practiced law dealing with medical malpractice and insurance companies over the last 30 years. Her book focuses on issues such as health insurance reform, oversight for prescription drug production, and the growing power of healthcare conglomerates. For more information about Robinson and The Price of Death, visit (Interview conducted by R. C. Anderson and Dr. J.C.)

In a capitalist healthcare system focused on profits, what is the most effective reimbursement structure to reward providers for care while also managing costs?

We need a regulated system – a private/public partnership [that…involves payment to the government for healthcare and government-monitored, private health insurance companies administering payment to privately employed doctors and privately run hospitals]. Over the last 20 years, we have been depending on the free enterprise system to bring costs down. Over that time, healthcare costs have risen faster than the rate of inflation. That is because we don’t really have a free enterprise system. The free market is skewed by politics. The large healthcare companies have huge amounts of money to pass along to Congress via lobbyists, who influence Congress to pass laws that benefit big business healthcare.

What we are not cognizant of is the tremendous amount of profit realized by these companies, healthcare insurance, managed care, and pharmaceutical companies. These companies drive up our healthcare costs. We have the most expensive healthcare in the world, spending 17% of our GDP. France, Italy, Germany, Japan, and Taiwan spend roughly 8-9% of their GDP on healthcare, cover everyone, and have extremely happy patients.

We are told that the only alternative to the system that we have is the Canadian style system. That is a false story put out by the beneficiaries of our current system, primarily the insurance companies.

One obvious consequence of bringing down big pharma and device companies is that they will no longer spend the huge R&D on blockbuster drugs if there is no capital reward via reimbursement. Thus one clear consequence of making healthcare more affordable is a slowing of discovery and advancement. How can we incentivize advancement in medicine while controlling costs?

Big pharma spends 10-15% of its profit on research and development and 30-40% on marketing. Professor Karl Lauterbach of Germany said in a PBS interview on Frontline, titled Sick Around the World, “I don’t know of a single economist who would buy into that argument. I think this is a lobbyist argument. A market works best if there are no inefficiencies, and higher-than-necessary prices are inefficiencies. And the drug companies now spend more for marketing the drugs than for innovating the drugs. This clearly is an artifact which comes across with this system of subsidized and too-high prices.”

Do you think that class-action lawsuits by providers against insurance companies are a good solution to balance the inequity of power insurance companies wield in the current healthcare climate? Or does this merely clog the judicial system and become a distraction from what providers should be doing: helping patients?

Class actions and lawsuits in general are very wasteful of resources because the outcome is extremely uncertain and the suits are very costly in time and money. They would take time away from healthcare and possibly put health care workers in an unfavorable light vis-à-vis the public. As I said, the outcome of lawsuits is uncertain, and I think they should be used as a last resort. The better approach in this case is to influence the public and Congress for the development of a new healthcare system: a public/private partnership which eliminates the excessive profits of health insurance companies, big pharma, and managed care.

In your August newsletter, you describe the many and varied problems the U.S. has had with contaminated or improperly supervised drugs coming from China. Would it not solve a lot of the U.S.’s problems as well as poor patient outcomes if we simply stopped accepting drugs from China and instead paid a bit more for drugs that are properly supervised in countries that care to ensure it? What do you think it would take to reduce consumerism from China, especially given that drugs are not the only problems we have had, but also melanin contaminated products and lead contaminated toys?

I don’t think it likely that world trade is going to be turned back, and it may not even be a good idea. We already pay two to three times more for pharmaceuticals than other developed countries, for example Canada. We have been told that we must pay more in order to safeguard our drug supply and promote the development of new drugs.

U.S. drug companies are making record profits but still want to make more. They are having their drugs made in China to increase profits. Because we pay a premium for pharmaceuticals, I believe that we are a target for counterfeit pharmaceuticals, not more protected. Counterfeiters have no compunction about who they kill and want to make the most money. In my book, The Price of Death, I discuss the point of view of the Chinese on counterfeiting. Because this administration has actually reduced funding for the FDA despite the fact that world trade has increased, we are at great risk. At its current rate, the FDA will be able to inspect the 700 plants now open in China in the next 40-50 years. What we should do is require importers to pay a government fee to have their imports inspected. There is no reason that they should be making record profits and putting the consumer at risk as they are.

There was a problem with Baxter International heparin earlier this year, which, according to the FDA, probably came from China. The FDA says that the manufacturer used oversulfated chondroitin sulfate (OCS) instead of chondroitin sulfate (CS). The relative cost of the bogus chemical was only $9 per unit vs. $900 for the correct ingredient. There had also been a reduction in the availability of other materials to make heparin because it comes from pigs, and there was a pig epidemic in China. While it is difficult to prove, one can speculate why the plants would have substituted the new ingredient when stocks of other ingredients fell short and became more expensive. I say that it is difficult to prove partly because the Chinese government had not admitted that the OCS was the cause of the problem even though the FDA has indicated so on its website. The bogus chemical fooled the standard tests [about the protein content of the product], impeding immediate discovery of the problem.

Now Here’s Your Chance to Ask the Questions (and Win One of Three Copies of The Price of Death, Too!)

Do you have a question that we didn’t ask? Here’s your chance to pick S.J. Robinson’s brain. Submit your questions for her in the comments section, and she’ll be available for a week to answer them. Also, by submitting your question, you will be automatically entered into a drawing next week in which three winners will receive a free copy of her book. (Sorry, you must be a U.S. or Canada resident to participate in the drawing.) Please see our Book Giveaways information page for complete details and ask away!

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