Although Australia acknowledges health care as a right of all its citizens, the Ministry of Health in that country must still contend with the greed of big pharmaceutical corporations. The latest controversy in Australia has centered on a drug manufactured by U.S. pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, marketed under the brand name Alimta. Also known by its generic name pemetrexed, the drug has been used to treat a number of non-small cell cancers, including mesothelioma. It is not a cure for the disease. In fact, Alimta does little to extend the survival rate of mesothelioma patients more than two months. What it does do is relieve the excruciating pain these patients must deal with, allowing them to pass their final days in greater comfort. It is a fact readily acknowledged by Barry Robson, president of Australia’s Asbestos Diseases Foundation, who said that “What it does do is give them a bit of soft landing…I’ve buried a lot of wharfies with this terrible disease.”
The problem, as in the U.S., is the never-ending quest for corporate profits: while there is little information on how much this drug actually costs Eli Lilly to produce, it is known that big pharmaceutical corporations pay exorbitant amounts to their CEOs and lobbyists; in addition, stock price and shareholder dividends, not public health, are their major concern. Bottom line: $20,000 per patient for a course of treatment lasting 18 weeks. Although Australia’s Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) offers most drugs to the citizens of that country at low or no cost, the price tag of this drug, which would be taken by relatively few patients, threatened to break the bureau’s budget. It came down to whether PBS should provide to a larger segment of the population lower-cost drugs that would possibly save lives, or subsidize for a small minority an expensive drug that would at best extend life by two months. Given the ravages of mesothelioma, it seems an inhuman choice. Last week, Australian legislators promised to provide subsidies for Alimta starting in January 2008. It can’t come soon enough for Australia’s mesothelioma sufferers, many of whom have had to mortgage homes and go deeply in debt to pay for the drug. Interestingly, Eli Lilly agreed to cut the price for Australians by 10%. Americans should consider that fact next year when they head to the polls; the Congress that is supposed to be representing their interests voted last year to make it illegal for the U.S. government to negotiate lower drug prices, and to add insult to injury, outlawed Americans from re-importing these drugs from abroad at lower prices.