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The war against pricey prescriptions examined

June 19, 2003|Scott Sandell | Times Staff Writer

As the U.S. Senate debates Medicare reform this week, you might be forgiven for stifling a yawn and wondering, "Haven't we heard this before?" And if you aren't yet of a certain age, you might also question how the topic of prescription drug benefits for senior citizens affects your life now.

But as tonight's "Frontline" shows, the battle over the cost of pharmaceuticals knows no age limits. Though "The Other Drug War," airing on KCET at 9 and KVCR at 10, tends to focus on seniors, declaring that they use one-third of all prescribed medications, that also means younger generations consume the remaining two-thirds. Plus, the report makes the point that what seniors pay for prescriptions ultimately affects the cost and variety of medicines for everyone.

Indeed, the trials and tribulations of senior citizens serve as a launching point for a larger discussion tonight of how the pharmaceutical industry works, from the perspectives of its leaders and critics alike. Though the hourlong show often skews toward the consumer advocates' position (it's couched as exploring "a war between a $200-billion industry ... and the rest of us"), both sides receive ample time to state their cases.

"The Other Drug War" provides a nice primer on everything from Medicare to why drugs cost so much. It features a lively debate of how price controls might reduce companies' willingness to spend on research and development for innovative medications. And it examines the efforts of states such as Maine and Oregon to regulate prices in the absence of federal action.

What isn't addressed is the mind-set that the cure for every malady seemingly lies in a pill or potion -- whether over-the-counter, brand-name or generic prescription. Then again, maybe that's the other other drug war.

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