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The Hill Op-Ed: Ahead of a coronavirus vaccine, Mexico's drug pricing to have far-reaching impacts on Americans


The United States and Mexico have both been slammed by the COVID-19 pandemic with more than six million U.S. cases and 185,000 deaths and Mexico surging to 606,000 cases, the eighth highest in the world. Yet amidst this global health crisis, Mexico’s Congress recently passed legislation implementing the revised North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that include new monopoly rights for pharmaceutical corporations that will restrict access to affordable medicines and hurt patients throughout North America. 

Notably, these changes were not required by the revised trade deal. Ensuring the agreement did not undermine countries’ authority to ensure their residents could access affordable drugs was a defining principle of all our work on NAFTA renegotiations.

Democrats in Congress rejected the original deal Trump signed in 2018 in no small part because it would have exported to Mexico and Canada many problematic aspects of the pharmaceutical regime that makes medicines here so expensive. Last year, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) asked three of us, Reps. Schakowsky, Blumenauer, and DeLauro, to participate in a Working Group that negotiated with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to eliminate these Big Pharma giveaways and secure other major improvements.

Notably, the U.S. Trade Representative did not inform the House of Representatives about this development. By the time we became aware, it was too late for us to engage with our counterparts in the Mexican Congress.

We had the health of all North Americans in mind as we fought for these changes. Rep. Escobar, who represents El Paso, Texas, one of our nation’s largest border communities, made sure we knew that the most directly impacted U.S. residents were those living along the Mexico and Canadian borders.

Many travel to our neighboring countries to purchase medicine they cannot afford at U.S. prices.

Last year, one of Rep. Escobar’s constituents, Paulina, took her daughter to the doctor because she had the flu. She was billed a $200 co-pay, and her daughter was prescribed TamiFlu. It would have cost another $300 that they didn’t have to spare. However, the same medication costs under $40 in nearby Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. So, Paulina drove to a pharmacy there and bought the medicine her daughter needed.

Paulina’s reliance on medication from Mexico to help her sick, young child is a consequence of pharmaceutical industry profiteering that is made possible by U.S. policies protecting corporations from the generic competition that reduces prices. We are all committed to changing U.S. medicine pricing policies and would not tolerate a trade agreement that locked in these policies at home or exported them to our neighbors.

So, for six months, the Working Group did not budge, knowing that fixing this aspect of the agreement was a matter life or death for American, Mexican, and Canadian families. And we succeeded. The final agreement ensures timely access to affordable medicines and promotes innovation.

Thus, it is especially frustrating that the Mexican Congress made last-minute amendments to the “Protection of Industrial Innovation” terms connected to the revised NAFTA’s implementing legislation that promote pharmaceutical price gouging. Worse, the specific measure, called second-use patenting, is a special threat in the COVID-19 context. If existing medicines patented for other uses are found effective to treat the novel coronavirus, this policy guarantees pharmaceutical firms can obtain new extended monopolies to set sky-high prices for COVID-related uses of an old drug.

This runs counter to what we negotiated in the final revised NAFTA.

We are still looking for answers but fear we will uncover the tracks of the pharmaceutical industry or entities representing their interests meddling in the Mexican legislative process. Regardless of what we find, we will not stop our efforts to make medicine more affordable for our constituents and patients across the world.

The disparities between sky-high U.S. medicine prices and affordable medicines in Mexico and Canada have long been a source of embarrassment for U.S. pharmaceutical companies. U.S. drug prices have skyrocketed so dramatically that even as the U.S. market share for generics increased from 67 to 90 percent between 2007 and 2017, the price gouging for brand name drugs still resulted in our total spending on prescription drugs jumping from $236 billion to $333 billion over the same time period.

Certainly, the Mexican government has no obligation to engage in a costly public relations campaign for these corporations.

The good news, however, is that it’s not too late; Mexico’s Congress can and should right this wrong. But they must act speedily, given the gravity of the public health crisis with which North Americans continue to struggle.

Rep. Veronica Escobar of Texas represents constituents directly impacted by Mexico’s medicine pricing policies. Reps. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, and Earl Blumenauer of Oregon are members of the U.S. House of Representatives Trade Working Group, task force that negotiated the new NAFTA, the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement.

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