Civil Society Unites to Fight for Affordable Medicines

By Fran Quigley

Frustration over Congress’s failure to reduce prescription drug prices is bringing civil society organizations together. Drug prices are continuing to increase far above rates of inflation, year after year, and more than 80% of American voters think lowering drug prices should be a priority for Congress.

The civil society groups uniting to fight for their right to medicines vary in experience with some having long, international legacies of advocacy, others are newly formed and work in individual US states. Some focus on scholarly policy analysis ,and there are street-level community organizers. Patient groups speak out on affordable medicines; so do physician groups.

Unions, faith communities, and universal healthcare advocates all focus on dramatically improving access to medicines. They are joined by an increasing number of elected officials pushing legislation to address a crisis that claims 10 million lives a year globally and causes one in five US residents to skip prescription medicines each year.

Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization in the US with over 400,000 members, organized the first-ever “Affordable Medicines Now” conference in Washington, DC, last month to bring together the broad range of groups concerned about this issue.

The scope of sessions was wide, including a type 1 diabetes insulin access advocate from Nigeria, an Ivy League professor, an expert on corporate responsibility advocacy, and practicing physicians. Advocacy tactics were exchanged, from best use of social media to presentation skills. Some sessions can be viewed on Public Citizen’s website.

There is a formidable challenge ahead. The pharmaceutical industry is one of the most profitable industries in modern history and it has deployed those profits to put its allies into elected office. In the United States 9 of 10 members of Congress have had their campaigns funded by pharma which then lobbies them aggressively once they hold office. Representative Lloyd Doggett (Democrat, Texas) told the conference there are 800-plus pharma lobbyists in Washington, DC.

Conference delegates were reminded that access to medicines advocates have won before. Veterans of the HIV/AIDS treatment movement observed that the key elements of their success in winning antiretroviral treatment for millions—patient leadership, civil society activism, international and cross-cultural alliances—exist in today’s growing momentum for access to medicines.

Speakers drew on the proverb of strength in unity being akin to a bundle of sticks. As individual advocates, we are as fragile as twigs, especially when facing a foe as determined and well-funded as Big Pharma. But when sticks are pulled into a bundle they are unbreakable.

Kudos to Public Citizen for pulling access to medicines sticks into the start of what promises to be a formidable yet diverse bundle. Here’s hoping that history will show the “Affordable Medicines Now” conference helps end prescription drug corporations’ profiteering—and starts an era where medicines are available to all.

Fran Quigley is the coordinator of People of Faith for Access to Medicines, and directs the Health and Human Rights Clinic at Indiana University McKinney School of Law