The role of law in public health

Written by Carmen Lyon, undergraduate at Washington University in St. Louis and participant in the Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program

Growing up in the age of the Affordable Care Act, millennials have difficulty imagining a time when healthcare policy and law were not at the forefront of the national stage. Even with the focus on the ACA, and any subsequent health care acts, most premed undergraduate student focus heavily on the basic sciences.

As Associate Law Professor, Rachel Sachs, JD, MPH points out however, the law is—and always will be—the man behind the curtain pulling the strings of medicine. Law deems what health and pharmaceutical products a consumer can purchase, how safe these products have to be, and when you can take legal action against any medical or pharmaceutical provider. When people become actors in the health care system, they often face many choices; law dictates what options they are choosing between.

Rachel Sachs

Professor Sachs’ talk highlighted many examples of how the legal code is put to use, both on national and international scales. She discussed the United States’ infamous drug pricing problem and revealed key policy that was at play in fostering an environment that allowed for sky-high pharmaceutical prices.

Not every country suffers these extreme prices, despite the fact that our world is more connected than ever before. This is due to laws that allow differential pricing between countries (i.e. companies can sell different countries the same drug but at different prices, based on the country’s tries ability to negotiate, the ability to pay, and disease burden).

So what’s stopping me from, say, buying a huge amount of ARVs from a country where they are sold at a fraction of the cost, bringing them back to the USA, pricing them just below retail price, and subsequently graduating medical school without any debt?  According to Professor Sachs, the answer for both this question and the innumerous questions that medical students will inevitably ask is, simply, the law.