Biden won’t end cancer — or any other disease — by importing drug price controls from Europe

By James K. Glassman, June 28, 2021

n his first budget, President Biden set aggressive health goals. “Let’s end cancer as we know it,” he said to rousing applause in a speech to Congress. “It’s within our power. It’s within our power to do it.”

Cancer is not all Biden wants to end. His budget also increases funding by two-thirds to meet the goal of “ending the HIV epidemic” in the U.S. by 2030. Then there’s Alzheimer’s, which the budget listed, along with cancer and diabetes, as targets of a large new research and development unit within the National Institutes of Health. Alzheimer’s costs the U.S. $277 billion a year. And, of course, the president wants to end the Covid-19 pandemic, which is still killing hundreds of Americans every day.

These ambitions are welcome. They build on the remarkable accomplishments of the past year, when U.S. companies developed therapies and vaccines for Covid-19 in record time. So let’s do the same for other diseases.

The House of Representatives approved H.R. 3 in December 2019, but the bill died in the Senate, which was then controlled by Republicans and is now split 50-50. The legislation, which was reintroduced on April 22, 2021, by three House chairs is now being tacked on to an infrastructure package.

Its most threatening feature is what’s called international reference pricing. That means linking the prices of hundreds of U.S. drugs to those of six other countries, where single-payer systems rule and prices are set by the government.

If H.R. 3 is enacted, U.S. prices would fall sharply, and so would biopharmaceutical R&D.

A study released in March by the research firm Vital Transformation found that implementing H.R. 3 would lower revenues for the pharmaceutical industry by $565 billion over five years. Earnings would fall an average of 62% for affected companies, and one-third would suffer declines of more than 95%. A separate study last year by the firm Avalere estimated that passing H.R. 3 would lead to drops in drug company revenues by $1.3 trillion to $1.7 trillion over 10 years.

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