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Heartburn

01/29/02 12:00AM

Here's an aching story that is happening all too often these days. You're ill. Flat on your back. You manage to get a prescription from your doctor and orders to start taking the medicine immediately. Bad news at the drug store. The pills are $107 and you don't have it. Payday is next Wednesday.

This is reality for Vermonters who don't earn livable wages, people who are uninsured for prescription drugs, and many people this time of year who haven't yet paid off insurance policy deductibles.

The gap between the costs of prescription drugs and what people can pay keeps growing. It's a significant slice of the whole growth in health care costs, that's threatening to collapse the system.

According to the report just issued by the Governor's Bipartisan Commission on Health Care Availability and Affordability, health care costs in Vermont now exceed the costs of every other state government program. Compare $2 billion for state health care costs to $1.8 billion for all other state services. And even with all that spending, we have people who are sick and can't buy medicine.

Even as the folks in Montpelier are struggling to find a few million dollars more in the budget that they can cut, an increase in costs for just one heartburn drug ate up another $1.3 million of state money. That's just one drug, Prilosec. Prilosec isn't the only culprit. But because of its use of the patent-protecting loopholes in the law, it has become the poster child for a movement by governors, big businesses, and labor groups to press Congress and the Food and Drug Administration for changes in the rules. Governor Dean has joined that movement on our behalf.

The group called Businesses for Affordable Medicine is trying to get the Congress and the FDA to close loopholes in the law that give patent protections to the drug companies. They say the drug companies are exploiting those loopholes to prevent generic drugs from coming on the market for years after their patents were due to expire.

The 18 governors who have enlisted so far have been joined by large employers who provide health care coverage for their employees - employers like Verizon, General Motors, Georgia Pacific, and Caterpillar. This is a stunning development. These are people likely to get the attention of even the most pro-businesses, pro-drug company Congress-people. With 35 billion dollars worth of drugs due to come off patent protection in the next four years, the stakes are enormous.

The industry should see the prophetic handwriting on the wall and start to work with people who are trying to solve the problems of overwhelming health care costs without moving from free markets to heavy controls. The system they love is theirs to lose.

If the drug companies don't start to cooperate and play fair, the heartburn may soon be theirs.

--Peg Devlyn is co-owner of Marketing Partners, Inc. in Burlington, Vermont.

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