Friends In High Places

Fred Baron is a prominent trial lawyer that has helped hundreds of people fight legal battles arising from unlawful exposure to asbestos.
Fred Baron is a Democratic Party Fundraiser who helped finance John Edwards presidential campaign.
Fred Baron paid hush-money to Edwards’ mistress and spirited her out of North Carolina when things were starting to get dicey.
Fred Baron is dying from multiple myeloma.
His doctors want to try the drug Tysabri as an “off-label”, last-ditch treatment for him, but the drug’s maker, Biogen Idec, has said no.  Tysabri is approved for MS and Crohn’s diseases.  It has been implicated in very rare cases of causing (or contributing to) the development of fatal brain infections in some patients – enough that the FDA briefly pulled it off the market to investigate the matter.  Biogen Idec has had to field several lawsuits arising from this outcome.  As such, they understandably want to limit the use of Tysabri and apply it only to those cases for which it is approved.
Enter former President Bill Clinton, Senators Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Representative Henry Waxman and Cyclist-endorser Lance Armstrong.  They have all made public statements and lobbied the FDA as well as the CEO of Biogen Idec to permit the “compassionate” use of Tysabri for Baron.  After several days, Biogen Idec relented and has allowed the used of Tysabri in the case.

I’ve been thinking about this case for a week now and am not sure how to feel.
Yes, those would be the same politicians that routinely malign drug companies and have argued for laws and regulations preventing “off-label” uses of drugs.  But when it’s a friend of yours that’s dying, it’s ok. I guess what it comes down to is unequal access.  That the rich, powerful and connected  (who spend their days arguing that the rich, powerful and connected of the other party are hurting the "little guy") can get something that no little guy can and that they can force the issue in the court of public opinion if need be.
Hypocrisy?  Check.
How many other “Freds” are out there?  Dying with no more recourse for new treatments?  Do you think Bill and Hillary and Lance would have called for them?  For you or me?  For Karl Rove?  Does that seem fair?  No.
And yet, neither does letting Fred Baron not have any more chances.

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10 thoughts on “Friends In High Places

  1. Wow, this is such a complex issue. It's intensely aggravating to think of him getting what he needs only because he has powerful friends (and is himself a fairly powerful man). Yet that is one of the undeniable truths of our times, and trust me, it manifests much more frequently and starkly in developing countries. I would never want to deny Baron his chance to live. That's not in question. But maybe some sort of public interest litigation could be undertaken questioning the discrimination involved? The common man's best bet would be a public movement of sorts bringing into focus the hypocrisy of the situation. I feel terrible and so frustrated thinking of the people — and there must be quite a few — who needed this drug but couldn't get it because they didn't have Hillary Clinton phoning in on their behalf.

  2. This is a great ethical dilemma. I pretty much agree with what Lightchaser said — it is up to the people to call out the hypocrisy of the situation. I don't want to be dead because I don't have half the government on speed dial.

  3. I thought this was very interesting, and I really liked the thinking points you presented. But moving beyond the hypocrisy (to which, sadly, there really is no answer), it made me wonder how afraid Fred Baron is of death. I mean, seriously. I'm not saying that modern medicine is bad and that no one should have access to life-saving treatments. But, honestly, aren't we all going to die at some point?
    Baby Boomers like Fred, Bill, Hillary, and their contemporaries (in politics or not, rich or not, connected or not) will keep the healthcare industry busy for many years to come. It's certainly more food for thought, no?

  4. LC — yes, it gets down to the "life's not fair" conclusion that we're too often made to swallow. In essence, bending the rules is a commodity that can be acquired by the rich, famous and/or powerful.

  5. Cori — the dilemma's really gotten under my skin. But yet, if you or I could do something to help one of our friends or family, wouldn't we also try and bend any rule to do it. Is it the fact that they did it, or the frustration that we can't?

  6. Eileen — you're absolutely right — as an aging population, these issues (the whole end-of-life scenario) are likely to come more to the center. I think its interesting, b/c policy is easy, but acting at the individual level is really hard.

  7. Well, I've always been one to follow the rules so that part drives me crazy, as does the hypocrisy of it all. I think the bigger problem is what lies behind — that perhaps the rules aren't fair and breaking them favors the strong versus the weak. It's not fair all around. I can't completely fault the drug company for wanting to cover its bases, and I can't fault the friends of a guy who know he needs help. One of my favorite stories in the Bible is the one where the paralyzed guy is brought, by his friends, through the roof, to Jesus because that's where the healing was. Jesus had the power to heal and his friends did what they could to get him there. The made a phone call to the Big Guy. Are Hillary et al that much different?
    Woah. Rambling. Sorry.

  8. When it comes to helping family and friends in bad situations I think we'll all bend the rules when we can. I think the frustration arises when we're not in a position to do so.

  9. You didn't mention that in this case, the FDA had already granted the firm a waiver, so that when the CEO initially said no, it was with the express knowledge that the FDA was on board with the request. It was the resulting publicity that changed his mind.

  10. I think one of my questions is: should it be okay to force a private company — not a public institution — to do something that they don't want to? Even it's for an "altruistic" reason like this one?

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