Affordable Health Care?
Recently, actress Angelina Jolie announced publicly the decision to undergo a double mastectomy after learning she carried the BRCA1 gene, making her risk of getting breast cancer extremely high. There are several important implications of this situation which point out some serious shortcomings of our current health care system.
The BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, which indicate increased risk for breast or ovarian cancer, have been patented and those patents are owned by Myriad Genetics. A case concerning this is currently pending before the US Supreme Court, which is scheduled to decide on the propriety of this situation in a matter of weeks. Currently, Myriad holds a monopoly on the test used to detect the genetic problem related to this increased risk, and the cost is now over $4,000 in the US, making it prohibitive for many to even be tested.
It’s important to note that the vast majority of women do not require this test. Less than 1% have the gene mutation that causes the risk. Most can be ruled out based on family medical history. But by owning the patents and being able to set the price for the test higher than it needs to be by virtue of its monopoly, Myriad stands to gain much in profits by having more people take the test than need to or should take it. Not every one has insurance. Not all insurance covers the entire cost of the test. Should such patents be allowed by law, considering the fact that they allow necessary medical procedures to be denied people on the basis of their inability to pay for them? Why patent genes at all? Myriad, or any other company, did not create them or invent them. Why should they be allowed to control life and death decisions on their use for personal profit?
Likewise, while Jolie is obviously in position to be able to afford the extremely expensive treatment she has and will receive in this circumstance, her economic status is rare in this regard. By far, most women in her situation would be less financially able to pay for the test, mastectomies and reconstructive surgery required. The cost of the test itself is artificially high, but what of the cost of the treatment? Recent reports show vast differences in charges made for procedures and treatments carried out at different hospitals by different health care professionals? Why are there no standards governing them, considering how health costs have escalated in terms of the percentage of the national economy that they consume. How should medical costs be contained so that they are affordable, both to the individual and to society as a whole? Should personal wealth be as determinate of health care availability as it obviously is currently?
Should corporations be permitted to legally profit unduly by charging outrageous amounts of money for medically necessary tests and/or treatments because they are not subject to market competition? Why does our government seem to be allowing these monopolies to exist to the detriment of so many of us? The Supreme Court will be deciding some of these issues soon, but the way they have been siding with corporate power over individual interests in recent years does not leave me particularly optimistic in this regard.
The issue of patents on parts of nature such as genetics is only part of this whole corporate profit way of addressing health care in this country that seems to me to be grossly unfair. Millions, even billions of dollars of taxpayer money has gone into medical research and other scientific research of all kinds, supposedly to benefit us all as a society, as well as those who will come after us. The results of this research often seem to end up lining the pockets of large medical, insurance and pharmaceutical firms, lessening the benefits available to the vast majority of people both in this country and abroad.
Laws need to be written so that advances in medical, pharmaceutical and other sciences that can benefit the lives of all of us in fact do so. People need to be able to afford the care they require to live healthy and productive lives when such care exists at all. That includes all people, not just those who have access to a certain level of wealth that makes it worth somebody’s or some company’s while to sell it to them. Placing profits ahead of people in health care, education or any other essential area of our lives is unacceptable in a “free” and open, compassionate and humane society.
The Affordable Care Act has gone a way towards making some health care more affordable to more people than was the case before it passed. The cases of Angelina Jolie and many more like it illustrate that we have a long way to go before we can say that we have equality as well as quality when it comes to health care availability in this country. Much more of the profit for a few needs to be taken out of our system to make it more just and compassionate. Perhaps patent rights need to be more restricted to make this happen. Capitalists claim to want free markets and competition, but their goals and the laws they seek to have enacted seem more towards restricting competition in order to maximize profits, the public be damned. We need to regulate that so that we may all be better off.