For profit drug and medical supply companies are geared to maximize profits

This topic is not a new one and is one I first wrote of several years ago. The concern is the number of for-profit companies who make drugs and medical supplies are not geared toward fighting pandemic or new bacterial strains that keep cropping up. They are geared toward profit. What do I mean by this?

Think of all of the television commercials about new prescription drugs. It will not be hard as there is a growing number with new names that make you ask, now what does this do? Quite simply, a drug company makes more money creating a maintenance drug you take every day for the rest of your life than they do making cures for major diseases.

It is not unusual for the company to codify a new illness which is neatly packaged with this new pill. Or, the new pill may be a supplement to an existing drug to make it better or address the side effects. Did you know there is an anti-constipation drug that is sold to help alleviate the constipation caused by opioid painkillers? Please note this is not intended to slight anyone who is gaining benefit from one of these drugs.

Making a drug that will cure something, simply has a low or negative ROI. One reason is the company would look poor if they charge to high a price for a cure. This is where the CDC and NIH must garner funding to pay for the development of drugs before the pandemic catches fire. The other risk is the new bacterial strains that may develop beyond our ability to fight the strain. This is where I first learned of the funding deficiency for massive exposure problems.

The same can be said of medical equipment. The New York Times has a good piece on the recent history of ventilator production. Agreements have been made then voided by acquisitive companies. These acquisitions were either to protect a higher priced ventilator or a market share. So, there were a number of false starts. What is frustrating is how easily contracts can be voided after an acquisition. This is horribly unfair to the buyer of the service or product, especially when the contract could help many.

There are a couple of larger points to be made. This is a great example of where there needs to be a blend of financial responsibility on investment for the greater good. This is not new. Our country has a history of a blend of corporate, venture capital, private and government investment. This is a key theme of Pulitzer Prize winning author Thomas Friedman’s book “That Used to be Us: How America fell behind in the world it created and how it can come back.”

Per another economic advisor, David Smick (“The World is Curved”) who advised Republican and Democrat presidents, this blend of capital investment need not occur on every investment or in some set order. Sometimes government funding leads and sometimes it may trail. The point is we have way to many either/ or arguments when the right answer is a blend of both or multiple. This is known as the “tyranny of the or.” Our history is built on the blend of capital investment, especially for large infrastructure projects.

So, greater good investments need to be evaluated as soon as possible. When the risk is identified, that is when the spend is needed, if not before given what the challenge is. Not having a COVID-19 vaccine early on is one thing that should have been addressed a few months ago given the development time. Not having enough ventilators is something that should have been addressed well before given their need. Leaving certain things to solely a for-profit lens will mean that some needed investments may not get made or not made soon enough.

All over the place

My favorite conservative pundit is David Brooks, who appears every Friday on PBS Newhour and NPR to recap the events of the week. I have found his voice one of reason, even if I do not agree with everything he says. I have also read several of his books on subjects like building character and community.

He has been an even-tempered critic of actions, decisions and behaviors of the US president. Last Friday, he used the word “inconstancy” of the president as a great risk in addressing COVID-19. The president will change his position within the hour, he consistently misinforms where it needs to be corrected, and he naysayed the severity of the coronavirus through the end of February, so we lost six weeks.

And, the misinformation continues today. So, much that NPR and other news outlets stopped covering his press conferences live. Building off Brooks’ term, I would say the president governs “all over the place.” He will change his tune due to criticism in the news or if he likes a message from one of his sycophants.

One of the better news shows happens to be a comedy show called “Last Week Tonight” starring John Oliver. The focus of this past Sunday night show is the danger people are being placed under by poor leadership, but also by sycophants.

Oliver notes this theme that danger to the American economy is far worse than people dying is beyond misguided. It is dangerous. He highlights words by the president, conservative host Glenn Beck and the Lt. Governor of Texas who downplay the health risk and speak of economic Armsgeddon.

As Oliver points out it is easy to talk big with others taking the risk with their lives. Then Oliver points out the economic fall out of overwhelmed hospitals and people dying. We are witnessing even now the cost of early inaction.

We must focus on the health of people first and foremost. I fully understand the need to help financially people who are in need due to layoffs or hours reduction.

Yet, while we missed opportunities to plan, we cannot miss any more. We must listen to the truthtellers and ignore those who are politicizing and trying to obfuscate the truth.

As Oliver addressed critics, he said he wants the president to succeed at helping fight this virus. But, he cannot be when his primary mission is how he looks. Perhaps Brooks comment a few months back is the more pertinent one – the president lacks common decency and a sense of empathy. That speaks volumes.

Debt, risk and lies

The following is a comment I posted on our friend Jill’s blogpost where she has penned an excellent letter firing the president. See below for a link. There is good back and forth between two of her followers, which is good for its content and civility, the way it should be. Since the debt came up as one issue, as a failing of many presidents including Obama, I used that as one example. These are the views of this independent voter who has been a member of both parties and defines himself as fiscally conservative and socially progressive.

Just taking the debt as one issue, while Obama will be remembered as a pretty good president, to me a key failure was to put on the shelf the Simpson-Bowles Deficit Reduction Act. Dems and Reps did not like it as for every $1 of tax increases it asked for $2 of spending cuts. Obama should have said, let’s start with this and make changes. What both parties fail to understand is we need both spending cuts and tax increases to solve the debt – the math will not otherwise work.

That was when the debt was about half of what it is now. I find the Freedom Caucus who got elected on reducing the debt the height of hypocrisy when they voted for a tax law change in December 2017 that increased the debt by $1.5 trillion – we did not need that, so now when we spend $2 trillion because of COVID-19, we have to go deeper into the well to borrow money.

On top of the many reasons not to vote for Trump (climate, environment, corruption, chaos, lying, global leadership retrenchment, et al), his cavalier short term financial focus to prop up a long running pretty good economy to be a little better for a little while was indicative of why he had six corporate bankruptcies and other failed investments. Even on the COVID-19, his primary focus has been his image, first, the stock market second (his proxy for the economy) then the people, third. This is not a recipe for good decisions and is one reason for his inconsistency.

But, at the heart of all of this, is I do not believe a word the president says and that makes me sad. All presidents lie to some extent, but this one is the most corrupt and deceitful president in my lifetime including Richard Nixon and he was a crook.

But, before we burn the government down, please read Michael Lewis’ “The Fifth Risk,” which reveals the true risk heightened by this “chaotic and incompetent” president’s White House (per conservative pundit David Brooks) and that is the gutting and hamstringing of people who know what they are doing to serve us. Could they be more efficient, always? But, for the very large part, they are dedicated public servants trying to do a good job. Lewis based his book on the required briefing materials prepared by the outgoing administration that went largely unread and not even picked up when briefings went unattended by incoming (or not even appointed) Trump people.

YOU’RE FIRED!!!

Listen to the truthtellers – sample letter to editor

Misinformation and disinformation abound with COVID-19. The line we must use when we see incredulous Facebook posts or hear fabricated conspiracy theories (like Bill Gates concocted COVID-19 to make money), or the simple echoing of misinformation by the president, is “I would encourage you to listen to the truthtellers.” When asked, you can mention the doctors and scientists. If asked to elaborate further, you can say “Listen to the people not patting themselves on the back telling what a great job they are doing.”

Listen to the truthtellers

We need to listen to the truthtellers on the COVID-19 pandemic. They are the ones who deliver facts, seek more data and don’t pat themselves on the back. They will also say we don’t know yet, more often than the back-patters.

An ER nurse earlier in the werk said what has surprised her is the number of people between ages 25 and 54 that are coming in with the virus. Last night, PBS (or it may have been ABC) reported that younger folks who have diabetes (or pre-diabetes) or asthma are at higher risk. So, everyone is at risk to some extent.

We are behind where we need to be due to both the naysaying (calling it a hoax) from the White House and sheepish other politicians, the elimination of the Global Pandemic group in 2018 and the elimination of some US CDC epidemiologists in China in 2019. We are doing things now that should have been planned back in January. The legislators were forewarned by National Security folks, so the pandemic risk was known.

Even still, too many have parroted the president’s early naysaying (which lasted to the end of February) and more have gotten sick or died, even a few parroters. This echo effect is what is dangerous given the misinformation which continues to today.

David Brooks, the conservative pundit, called the “inconstancy” of the president on these issues as a major risk. He cited the president’s downplaying of needed ventilators one hour and issuing an emergency declaration for more ventilators the next. He tends to react to remedy any bad press rather than plan ahead.

I heard yesterday, NPR and other news outlets are not broadcasting the White House press conferences wall-to-wall” due to the misinformation from the president. They do report on what the truthtellers are saying, as good information is discussed. But are they are not covering the president’s talking points live.

So, folks young and older need to listen to the doctors and truthtellers. Their lives may depend on it.

Sidebar: If one of your friends, colleagues, relatives, bosses or other co-workers routinely bragged on what a great job they were doing, what would you reaction be? If the boss’ direct reports bragged on the boss on a routine basis, again what would your reaction be? The same question should be asked when it happens at the uppermost leadership levels in our country.

Poor (or not so poor) Richard’s Almanac

One of my two North Carolina Senators is Richard Burr. While I do not agree with everything he opines, this independent voter has voted for him on occasion and against him as well. Yet, he has always seemed to be one of the more reasonable Republicans and Senators in office. I have actually even met him twice, once at a meeting about the state’s homeless population and once at my boss’ request to brief him on employer health care issues when he first ran as a Congressman.

So, this makes it even more troubling that he has been alleged of insider trading on stocks to pocket the upside gain on hospitality stocks when he had knowledge those stocks would suffer as the coronavirus became more known. He and Kelly Loeffler, the new Senator from Georgia, have been accused of such. From a Reason.com article called “Senators Richard Burr, Kelly Loeffler accused of coronavirus motivated insider trading” (see link below):

“Plague trading? Privately, Sen. Richard Burr (R–N.C.) warned constituents weeks ago that coronavirus was “akin to the 1918 pandemic,” NPR reports. Publicly, he towed President Donald Trump’s line that the new disease would not be a big deal.

Worse still, ProPublica reports that Burr sold off between $600,000 and $1.7 million in stocks on February 13, suggesting that he used his private knowledge about the coming economic impact of the pandemic to prevent personal financial losses. Burr chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee and is a member of the Health Committee. At the time he sold the stocks—a significant proportion of his wealth—he was being briefed regularly on COVID-19.

It was the largest single-day stock trade for Burr in 14 months.”

Insider trading is a crime for “named executives” according to the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC). Note Burr is not a named executive of these companies. Yet, it is also in violation of the STOCK (Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge) passed in 2012, which Burr ironically voted against. This act was passed after “60 Minutes” did a report that noted former Congress members were leaving office much wealthier than when they arrived due to insider knowledge. This is where Burr’s action may lead to trouble for him.

People may not recall the Enron scandal which hit the fan in the early 2000s. This is where Enron executives had over 40 fraudulent schemes to hide losses and artificially prop up earnings for stock appreciation and bonus determination. What is also infuriating, the CEO told employees to keep buying and not divest Enron stock, even when he knew the price was artificially propped up. He and his CFO went to jail for securities fraud. Senator Burr was telling people the president’s party-line of not to panic about the coronavirus and this will blow over, when he had been briefed as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations and Intelligence Committee to the contrary.

He argues that he was selling based on public knowledge, but the above paragraph reveals concerns. Right now, a shareholder of Wyndham Resorts, one of the stocks, is suing the Senator for insider trading. I am certain other shareholders will be asked to join the lawsuit to make it a class action. They will have standing, meaning they lost value, while Burr sold and pocketed gain on the advance knowledge.

A recent poll in The Charlotte Observer, cited 50% of all NC voters and 31% of GOP NC voters want Burr to resign. Even Fox News talk show host Tucker Carlson has asked for his resignation. This is why it is critical that elected officials must be divorced from the handling of their investments, either placing them in blind trust or selling them. It should be noted NC Congressman Robert Pittenger resigned his position two years ago due to his unethically remaining involved in the management of his business when he said he was not.

Senator Burr, I recognize this an alleged crime, but the optics look very poor. I know you asked for an investigation, which sounds good, but if it is done correctly, it may not come out in your favor. Even if it does, the shareholder lawsuit will be even more invasive. I do not see you escaping hard scrutiny. It is sad that you will likely be remembered more for this, than other more reasonable efforts you have made. I know you have announced last year you won’t be running again in 2022, but you may be forced to reconsider this.

Sens. Richard Burr, Kelly Loeffler Accused of Coronavirus-Motivated Insider Trading

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – a synopsis

Clint Eastwood’s most famous spaghetti western is “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” The title is a common framework to define a series of events, even preceding the movie. Using it one more time, let me frame a few issues with the coronavirus.

The Good

The few silver linings are seeing people going beyond the call of duty to help. The healthcare providers are heroes putting themselves at risk without all of the tools and resources needed. Volunteers and other good folks are doing their best to help through many means. As Mister Rogers said in times of crisis, focus on the helpers.

Seeing people come together to check if people need food shopping done or errands run is inspiring. Some employers are going beyond the call to help.

Another good outcome is the air quality has improved in major cities and carbon ouput has declined. Why? Fewer drivers and less travel. The lessening carbon output is actually noticeable from space in historical problem areas.

The Bad

Being unprepared to start with. I have shared before examples of budget cutbacks causing key staff cuts hindering the ability to help. Then, when a crisis occurs people look back and say how could this happen? In this case, the Global Pandemic team was cut (once again) in 2018. And, in 2019 the tariff war with China caused the elimination of CDC epidemiologists on site in China to be cut.

These absences with the naysaying early on by the US president has left us in a catch up mode. More people have gotten the illness and exposure continues. Fortunately, more active shelter in place and social distancing measures are helping fight the risk led by state, local and now federal leadership. Hopefully, the stimulus bill will pass to open up funds to help.

The Ugly

The uncertainty and those who have lost their lives and loved ones. We are learning more things, but we still do not know as much as needed. We need data, tools, resources and money. We should not take this lightly. The stimulus bill will help, but it will not be a panacea. The financial recovery will take time, but the health risk must be the focus.

People are out of work and companies need customers. Hopefully, the risk curve can be flattened, but safety must be the primary lens. We need to avoid being too impatient and further exposing folks prematurely.

This is a long haul battle. But, the next few weeks and months are critical.