Price gouging on medications a moral atrocity

Criminal defendants are occasionally charged with "depraved indifference." In court, it has a specific legal definition.

Whether that definition would apply to anybody involved in the prescription drug price gouging under investigation in Congress is for lawyers to determine. But as a lay description of what profiteers apparently are doing to sick and suffering Americans, "depraved indifference" is note perfect.

As reported earlier this week, some congressional leaders have launched an investigation into pharmacies -- a few licensed, most apparently just shadow operations -- that allegedly have cashed in on shortages of crucial drugs by buying them up and reselling them at obscenely inflated prices.

These shadowy wholesalers are called "gray marketers," and lawmakers say they have evidence that these speculators are buying up drugs in short supply (in some cases, cornering the market) from legitimate wholesalers, then reselling them to hospitals or still other marketers for many times their legitimate price.Meanwhile, shortages of ordinarily inexpensive drugs such as sedatives, antibiotics and pain medication are either unavailable or available only at outrageous prices. One licensed pharmacy allegedly bought a chemotherapy drug -- yes, a chemotherapy drug -- for less than $7 a vial and sold it for $69 a vial. Another case involved a marketer who bought up supplies at $25.90 a dose and was selling it to hospitals for $1,200 a dose.

A 2011 survey put the average markup of drugs hospitals had to buy from wholesalers outside their normal distribution chain at 650 percent. And we wonder why health care costs are out of control?

Prohibitive prices aren't even the worst of it. Doctors have had to postpone critical procedures and treatments because they couldn't get, or patients couldn't pay for, necessary medications. People have suffered needlessly because ordinarily inexpensive palliative meds were unavailable or unaffordable. Drug shortages, from whatever causes, are blamed for 15 or more deaths just in the last three years.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and one of the leaders of the drug gouging/shortage investigation, told the Associated Press that if drug inflation is "not illegal, we're going to have to find a way to make it illegal, because this threatens virtually every person in the country."

It does indeed. Every American who isn't guaranteed a long life of perfect health has reason to be very concerned, and very angry.

In fact, some of these practices might already be illegal: AP reports that most states require drug wholesalers to buy only from licensed distributors or directly from pharmaceutical manufacturers.

Crack and meth dealers make money off the misery and suffering of others. If there's a definitive moral distinction between that and what these "gray market" vultures are doing, let's hear it.