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Story Last modified at 6:34 p.m. on Wednesday, June 15, 2011

'Sodium Pentathol Minutes' – a new TV show
Mountain Echos

Frank E. Baker

I was watching a recent "60 minutes" program on television which focused on the work of a large U.S. biomedical company that is performing gene manipulation to advance therapies for certain diseases. In the process the company is actually patenting these new gene adaptations, calling them "inventions." In doing so, they are charging astronomically high prices for the therapies, which they say are justified given the amount of time required, as well as expertise, to perform the necessary research and development.

I've also heard the same explanation for why pharmaceutical drugs are so high in the United States, as well as medical equipment and supplies.

I'd like to see a modified "60 Minutes" program, which I'd call "Sodium Pentathol Minutes," or SPM, in which those interviewed would be injected with sodium pentathol, a truth serum, moments before the questioning. I can imagine an interview with chief executive officers of biomedical, pharmaceutical and hospital equipment companies might go something like this:

SPM: In our last interview, you said that the reason for the extremely high cost of gene therapy is the length of time, expertise and expensive facilities needed to advance this research. Is that true?

Biomedical CEO: No. The reason for the high costs are that the company's top officers and board of directors very much enjoy their $1 million-plus homes, yachts and country club memberships.

SPM: Do you realize that life-giving treatment is unavailable to a large portion of the public because of these extremely high costs?

Biomedical CEO: Yes, but it is not that difficult to hide expenses so that we can make the public and regulatory agencies like the Food and Drug Administration believe that we have extraordinarily high overhead costs. Our costs are high, but not nearly as high as we make people believe.

SPM: Your company manufactures a significant portion of the prescription medicine used by the American public. Can you give me an example of your costs for a specific pharmaceutical, versus what patients are charged?

Pharmaceutical CEO: Sure. See this small yellow and white pill – it's an anti-inflammatory called Celebrex.

SPM: Yes.

Pharmaceutical CEO: Our cost to make one of these is about 20 cents. Patients and ultimately, insurance companies, are charged about 80 cents apiece for these.

SPM: Why such a big markup?

Pharmaceutical CEO: Like the biomedical guy told you, our company's senior officers and board of directors like their Long Island mansions and Ferrari convertibles.

SPM: You're kidding.

Biomedical CEO: Check it out. Our company's executives are some of the wealthiest people in America.

SPM: You don't say. Sir, you head up a large hospital equipment and supply company.

You told me yesterday that the reason why hospital bed sheets cost ten times that of normal bed sheets is that the hospital is trying to make up for losses from those patients who don't have insurance.

Medical Supply CEO: Only partially true. The real reason...

SPM: because the company's senior executives receive big salaries and bonuses and have lavish vacation homes in the Caribbean.

Medical Supply CEO: How did you know?

SPM: Just a lucky guess.

Frank E. Baker is a lifetime Alaskan and freelance writer who lives in Eagle River.

This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, June 15, 2011.