The pharmaceutical industry had come up with an ingenious plan to send drug prices ever higher, while protecting itself from competition. But it needed a Washington insider, someone who wouldn't lose sleep over hosing America's sick and infirm, to do its bidding on Capitol Hill.
Just such a man was waiting in Eden Prairie.
During his decade in D.C., Erik Paulsen essentially turned his office into a lobbying firm. His positions were exquisitely synchronized to the wishes of our mightiest corporations. He was especially good at harnessing the riches of Big Pharma and medical device makers, taking $1.2 million from our foremost artisans of price gouging.
Alas, suburban Minneapolis voters would eventually get wise to his hustle. Last fall, Dean Phillips and karma sent him packing in a landslide.
Yet the upside to selling your congressional seat is the monster payday awaiting should you falter. Paulsen is now free to pursue his true calling: shilling for Big Pharma's ultimate scam.
Last week, he signed on with Pass USMCA, a coalition of business groups like Dow Chemical and PhRMA, the lobbying arm of the pharmaceutical industry, which is pushing Congress to pass Donald Trump's trade deal with Mexico and Canada.
You likely haven't paid much attention to the details of the accord -- known as USMCA, a replacement for NAFTA. Most regular people don't. Which is precisely the point. It allows those with the most juice to load the fine print with all the candy their hearts desire.
Pharma's sweetheart deal is a clause giving new drugs 10 years of protection from generic competition, guaranteeing high prices not just for U.S. patients, but across Canada and Mexico as well.
Officially, the idea is to allow companies to recoup development costs and spur innovation with the riches that await. Unofficially, that's bullshit.
As a general rule, less than 20 percent of a drug company's costs go to the lab-coat variety of research and development. The rest is spent on sales, CEOs, and commercials featuring happy people walking on beaches and and playing with their grandchildren.
Those research costs dwindle once a drug gets FDA approval. Yet studies show the biggest price hikes come from existing drugs, not new breakthroughs.
Take Humira. In 2012, the anti-inflammatory went for the conventionally usurious price of $19,000 a year. Today, it goes for $38,000 annually. You could throw a dart at a list of the most popular drugs and find the same tactics.
The bigger concern is newer drugs known as biologics, made from living cells rather than chemicals. They're used to treat everything from diabetes to cancer. And they do cost more to research and manufacture.
The problem is their prices start exorbitantly high, then take bold new shots each year to launch themselves into previously undiscovered galaxies. They now account for 93 percent of growth in drug spending.
So why would the Trump administration use a trade deal to guarantee further swindle? It prevents Congress from doing anything to stem prices.
Since Democrats took control of the U.S. House last year, they've been agitating to bring generics quicker to market. Here's where Big Pharma's genius comes in. By guaranteeing a competition-free future in the massive USMCA deal – which covers everything from ag prices to environmental rules to labor practices – Congress would have to blow up the entire package just to do something about drug prices.
That means a rural congressman pleased by the deal's soybean prices, for example, would be forced to screw farmers just to help the sick.
Paulsen, of course, possesses the perfect moral elasticity to ride shotgun over the scheme. "USMCA will strengthen America's economy and boost opportunities for American workers,” he said of his new role. And he did it with a straight face.