This op-ed first appeared in The Gettysburg Times, September 10, 2021
I never thought I would describe Washington Dulles International Airport as a relaxing place to be. I have other associations with travel and the iconic design of Eeuro Saarinen’s main terminal. Navigating traffic on the way down, making sure my passport is not just valid but valid for long enough to satisfy entry requirements of other countries, not knowing how crowded the parking lots would be, and the extra airline fees for things that used to be included (like a suitcase) add to the whirlwind of stress.
And yet, walking toward my gate I experienced a sense of freedom that had nothing to do with post-check-in relief. No one argued about wearing masks. It was uncomplicated. People wanted to go places. That was the priority. The mask was just a matter-of-fact part of being in the shared space, a detail no more irritating than taking off our shoes and lifting our carry-on items into the bins for security.
Public health, at its essence, is about getting everyone to the point where we can relax. To function and live our lives requires basic health and safety.
We are individuals within communities. Like everyone I move through different spaces and contexts. Waiting to board the plane I was in the context of my fellow passengers and the crew and airport employees. Wearing a mask allowed me to get where I needed to go without endangering or inconveniencing others.
This isn’t partisan. It’s practical. Whatever context we find ourselves in, we share susceptibility to the aging process, to diseases and viruses, to bullets and the need for air and water. If you require an essential medicine to live you can’t relax without it because you literally cannot live without it.
Insulin is just one example. 2021 happens to be the 100th anniversary year of the invention of insulin in Canada. The patent was sold for $1.00 because the priority was getting it to patients as quickly as possible. Price gouging, easily manipulated patent laws and the power of PBMs are public health issues because we all pay for inflated pricing – directly or indirectly. It’s a public health issue because no one knows, from one day to the next when any of us will need an essential medicine. I’s a public health issue because many legislators – public-elected, public-serving citizens, are likely to take money from major pharmaceutical companies.
A post-election poll by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Politico asked how important 23 potential priorities mentioned in the media should be for Congress and President Biden. The results appear in Politico’s January 2021 report “The American Public’s Priorities for the New President and Congress.” Issues are ranked according to Republicans, Independents and Democrats. When it comes to points of concern widely agreed upon, “taking federal government action to lower prescription drug prices” was second only to the need for a COVID relief bill. We want the same thing.
Patients for Affordable Drugs has a useful graphic to show drug price hikes. More than 1,000 price hikes have taken place in 2021. The illustration points to the fact that 53 drug companies increased the price of 75 drugs in the first week in July – and that’s only halfway through the year.
We can do better. State and federal lawmakers can do better. Public health is not abstract. Think of ourselves and our health in the next largest context. An international airport is a great reminder that there are many ways to be. Strangers with a heck of a lot in common, we look and speak differently, yet we move through shared spaces – physically and virtually.
What can we do right now? One feature of the 2022 Budget Resolution and Reconciliation announced in August is giving Medicare the ability to negotiate lower prices for prescription drugs. Give it a chance. Express your support. This is long overdue. Sign the PHAN petition to lower prescription drug prices. Learn about one organization’s approach to the 100-year mark of the discovery of insulin at t1international.com/100years/. Consider stories and solutions offered at patientsforaffordabledrugs.org/solutions/. Get inspired by fabulous visual art responses to public health and the COVID-19 vaccine at Amplifier.
Katy Giebenhain is on the Gettysburg Area DFA Healthcare Task Force
An arts blog advocating for access to essential medicines