This article originally appeared on RealClearHealth.com
When you think of the biopharmaceutical industry, you might think of people in lab coats conducting research. What might not immediately come to mind are the men and women who build the labs and manufacturing facilities that these researchers rely on.
America’s biopharmaceutical sector relies on skilled plumbers, pipefitters, welders, electricians, sheet metal workers and ironworkers to build and maintain facilities. These are the workers who ensure research laboratories and manufacturing plants adhere to the most rigorous standards.
The government price-setting policies for medicines enacted last year and calls this year by some lawmakers to embrace even more aggressive price-setting methods, are putting those jobs at risk.
For 20 years, the Pharmaceutical Industry Labor-Management Association (PILMA) has promoted policies that support life-saving cures and good-paying jobs. The strength of this partnership between biopharmaceutical research companies and highly skilled union labor is a testament to what is at stake for patients and workers.
According to one study, projects using skilled union labor were 40% less likely to face worker shortages, and turnover rates were one-third lower than those utilizing open-shop labor. This translates to more building projects being delivered on time and on budget. That is why a significant share of the construction and maintenance of biopharmaceutical facilities relies on skilled union craft workers.
Consider the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Expanding manufacturing with both swiftness and exemplary quality was critical in addressing the pandemic, and manufacturing and delivering massive supplies of vaccines were instrumental in protecting communities and re-opening our economy.
Yet, so much of this progress is on the verge of being lost due to misguided policies.
Dozens of companies have announced they will be scaling back investments in certain parts of their research & development pipeline because of recent policy decisions. Resources are already being shifted away from medicines to treat cancer, neurological diseases, and autoimmune conditions. One study found that as many as 139 fewer drugs could be developed over the next ten years.
That means fewer jobs for American workers, as there will be fewer research and manufacturing facilities to build and retrofit. It also means jeopardizing our country’s global leadership in medical innovation. Once investments go away, there is no guarantee they will ever come back. And just as the U.S. is imposing policies that discourage biopharmaceutical industry growth, countries like China and India are investing heavily in life sciences companies to encourage continued growth of their own domestic industries.
America’s working families would experience substantial financial pain without a commensurate benefit. Government price setting does nothing to address the real reasons why many patients can’t afford their medicines: pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs). These middlemen, who own or are owned by insurance companies, decide what medicines get covered and what people pay out of pocket.
Last year, the largest three PBMs – which control 80% of the market – denied coverage to more than 1,150 medicines. When people are sick, they should be able to focus on getting better, not fighting to get access to the medicines their doctors prescribed. PBMs also charge fees and negotiate significant rebates that are tied to the price of medicines, which experts say can lead PBMs to prefer higher priced medicines and result in higher out-of-pocket costs for patients.
Congress can take practical steps to rein in these middlemen and make medicines more affordable. That includes ensuring rebates and discounts are passed along to patients and plan sponsors– particularly those patients with chronic diseases – so they are not paying more for their medicines than their PBMs and insurers. It also includes breaking the link between the list price of medicines and PBM profits, so middlemen aren’t incentivized to keep patients from lower cost options. And it includes demanding more accountability in PBM business practices to make sure they aren’t motivated to steer patients to pharmacies they own or mark up low-cost generics and biosimilars to pad their bottom lines.
This isn’t just a matter of policy. It’s personal for both of us. Mark’s career began by helping build and retrofit pharmaceutical facilities in New Jersey. This resulted in a good life and sound future for his family. Steve’s son has Type 1 diabetes, and the family is hopeful for a cure so that one day they won’t have to worry about needle sticks, constant blood glucose monitoring and the lifelong ravages that living with diabetes can have on the body.
Across this country, there are communities of working families that are living comfortable, middle-class lives because of the creation of new medicines and the quality jobs they generate. But the tens of millions of union labor hours that are devoted to pharmaceutical-related construction are being threatened by misguided policies. This isn’t hyperbole. It’s already happening. Our politicians still have time to change course and avoid a permanent loss of new cures, treatments, jobs and investments, but that time is short, and action is needed now.
PILMA and PhRMA stand ready to advocate for policy changes that lower costs for patients while protecting American innovation and jobs.
Mark McManus is the General President of the United Association of Union Plumbers and Pipefitters (UA) and Chairman of the Pharmaceutical Industry Labor-Management Association (PILMA).
Stephen J. Ubl is President and Chief Executive Officer of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA).