Do pharmaceutical companies have a social responsibility to the public?

Milton Friedman wrote that “there is one and only one social responsibility of business—to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.” One can argue that pharma companies have and have not adhered to this principle.

People working within the pharma industry like to feel they are doing good. They tell themselves that the drugs the industry creates help people live longer and better lives but there is an alternate reality too; Wall Street has become a key customer for executives.

As the employees at Google recently demonstrated bright young workers of the sort businesses most desire expect to work in a place that reflects their values much more than their parents’ generation did. They want to feel good about what they do yet their influence has not yet reached into pharma company executive offices.

Josh Wilkerson

Josh Wilkerson had been rationing his insulin because he couldn’t afford the $1,200 per month cost of proper care, and it killed him.

He turned 18 before Obamacare went into effect, and struggled in getting his own insurance.”It was during this time that Josh first began rationing insulin due to cost. After the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), Josh’s stepfather was able to place him on his insurance, the cost for his health care needs plummeted, and his life improved dramatically.

Josh lived the same paycheck-to-paycheck existence endured by millions of people in this “booming” economy. The additional $1,200-per-month burden of medical expenses became too much to bear, and the shame of being unable to financially support himself drove Josh back to the insulin rationing that ultimately ended his life. 

While Lily has promised a “generic” insulin reports are that it’s almost impossible to get. People without insurance only represent 3% of drug company financial assistance and rug company employees continue to tell themselves that people who die due to the high cost of medications represent a very small percentage of patient populations. My question is: when is a person more important than a statistic.

I have been working in and with pharma for almost 20 years. I have seen, firsthand, the changes from one of helping people to focusing on metrics and profit. There’s a hidden trap in this organizational architecture: A company can easily lose sight of its purpose and instead focus strictly on the metrics that are meant to represent it.

In meetings I attend the talk, more on more, has shifted from patients to ROI and numbers. PhRMA likes to talk about the value pharmaceutical companies bring to the population but that value is continually diminished by the development of “me too” drugs and raising prices at a time when everyone is complaining about the costs of healthcare.

Pharma companies need more people who are willing to risk their careers to say and do what is right. We need someone to knock down the walls of bureaucracy when they read somewhere that someone can’t afford their medication to contact them directly and end their anxiety.

It can’t always be about ROI, profits and sales. We, as a country, are starting to move past that and as usual pharma is the last to board this train.