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Ask-your-doctor ads fueling gravy train for drug industry

When our son was four or so, and television in rural Mississippi was in its infancy, one of the few stations we could get with our rooftop antenna was WABG at Greenwood. Reception was not that great.

During a visit with relatives, an uncle asked the lad, “What do you like to do?”

“Oh, just play, and watch TV,” he replied.

“And what do you watch?” the uncle queried.

“Mostly ‘difficulties,’” he responded, not missing a beat.

The story's funny only when you know that the station's programming would often vanish for long periods of time, replaced with a message that said: “Technical difficulties — Please stand by.”

One rarely sees that in today's TV world. But if a four-year-old were asked a similar question today, the response might well be, “Mostly ‘Ask your doctor.’”

It is impossible to watch anything on TV without being bombarded by commercials for drugs purporting relief for everything from toenail fungus to restless leg syndrome, heart disease, and Alzheimer's — always with the injunction, “Ask your doctor if such-and-such is right for you.”

This, after enumerating a laundry list of possible “serious side effects,” ranging from sleeplessness, loss of appetite, stroke, addiction, heart attack, liver complications, internal bleeding, vomiting, and death (the latter, admittedly, a pretty serious side effect).

Which leads one to wonder if the purported remedy isn't worse than the ailment, not to mention the drain on the pocketbook — because one thing's for sure and certain: all these drugs are hellaciously expensive.

The majority of those touted so extensively on TV are targeted to elderly participants in Medicare's drug assistance program, which has become a gravy train for the pharmaceutical companies since its inception a couple of years ago.

Thanks to the largesse of the Bush administration and a Republican-controlled Congress, the program was written so there would be no competitive pricing of drugs. It was Santa opening his toy shop and saying, “Take all you want.”

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform, reported that in the six-month period following the start of the Medicare drug program, pharmaceutical industry profits jumped more than $8 billion, or 27 percent. One major drug company saw profits soar 73 percent. Health care companies providing Part D insurance plans had revenue increases from 2005 to 2006 of 27 percent to 57 percent.

The nation's elderly are paying much more than necessary for drugs because of the prohibition against Medicare negotiating prices directly with the companies, as is done by the Veterans Administration. In many cases, prices paid by insurers participating in the Medicare program are over twice as much as those paid by the VA.

Among the top 20 most-prescribed drugs under Medicare in November 2006, Zocor 20 mg had a yearly cost for VA patients of $127.44; for Medicare, $1,485.96 — an unconscionable 1,066 percent difference. Zocor 40 mg prices were $191.16 and $1,485.96, a 677 percent difference; Protonix, a 435 percent difference; Prevacid, 334 percent difference; and Fosamax, 205 percent difference.

Little wonder drug companies are spending millions on “Ask your doctor” advertising.

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