Medical-device lobby seeks to play with the big boys

There are a number of tried-and-tested steps a trade association can take when it wants to build up clout on the Hill: It can expand its lobbying operation, populate its ranks with influential former Hill staffers, ratchet up its fundraising activities and tap a big name for its president.

There are a number of tried-and-tested steps a trade association can take when it wants to build up clout on the Hill: It can expand its lobbying operation, populate its ranks with influential former Hill staffers, ratchet up its fundraising activities and tap a big name for its president.

When the medical-device industry’s leading trade organization, the Advanced Medical Technology Association (AdvaMed), named lobbyist Stephen Ubl as its president in July, it opted to flout the fourth leg of that strategy.

But Ubl has already set in motion an ambitious plan to carry out the rest. “You’ll see a very aggressive effort going into next year,” Ubl said during an interview in AdvaMed’s G Street office. “Look for a much higher profile in terms of the industry’s presence around town.”

The companies that make heart monitors, pacemakers, scanners and other devices boast combined domestic revenues that hover around $70 billion a year — and have huge financial relationships with government programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.

Nevertheless, the industry is regarded more modestly on the Hill and K Street than healthcare powerhouses such as  the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA). AdvaMed’s influence historically has extended primarily to a handful of interested committees and members and to regulatory agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

In spite of that, AdvaMed chose a top executive who had a record inside the organization instead of making a flashier choice.

By contrast, PhRMA hired former Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), while the Biotechnology Industry Organization brought in former Rep. Jim Greenwood (R-Pa.). AdvaMed’s board of directors considered former members of Congress, Ubl said, but went in a different direction.

“It would be enormously difficult for someone without a background in this industry to take this job,” Ubl said. For six years, he ran AdvaMed’s government-relations shop. Last year, he opened his own shop but was brought back into the fold after only nine months. Ubl, a former aide to Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), was a lobbyist with the Federation of American Hospitals before he first joined AdvaMed.

Although AdvaMed eschewed hiring a marquee president, the group brought on board several former congressional staffers who are poised to strengthen its ties to the Hill and plans to fill several other senior positions in the coming months.

The group is looking to expand its government-relations shop from two to four full-time lobbyists, bolsters its policy offices, significantly enlarge its communications operation and install a general counsel, which AdvaMed has never had before.

A few months before Ubl took the helm, AdvaMed tapped David Nexon, a longtime top aide to Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) who has more than 20 years experience on healthcare issues in Congress and served in the Carter White House.

Recruiting a prominent Democratic aide for a senior position at a trade association runs counter to conventional wisdom on today’s GOP-centric K Street, Ubl acknowledged. “I look around town and I don’t see anyone with a Democrat of [Nexon’s] stature and experience in healthcare,” he said.

Balancing Nexon’s Democratic credentials is Ann-Marie Lynch, whom AdvaMed hired last month after she had served in the Bush administration for about a year. Previously, Lynch was a senior aide to Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) and worked for PhRMA.

Ubl said that Nexon and Lynch represent the kind of personnel AdvaMed needs on staff to compete for attention on the Hill. “I think it’s a lot less about who you know these days than what you know and, frankly, what you know you can prove with quantifiable data,” Ubl said.

Ubl plans to intensify AdvaMed’s political fundraising efforts, as well. The political action committee he created when he ran the lobbying operation now raises about $100,000 a year — a tally he described as “relatively modest” but a good start. Part of his strategy will be to coax PAC contributions from member-company executives who do not sit on AdvaMed’s board, he said.

The group also wants to raise money for key lawmakers. AdvaMed hosted an event for Rep. Jim McCrery (R-La.) — considered to be the front-runner for House Ways and Means Committee chairman in the next Congress — during its September meeting of the board of directors.

Underlying these moves is a recognition that the industry needs to be engaged with Congress on the bigger picture, Ubl said. Unlike the drug and health-insurance industries, for example, device makers historically have stayed away from the broader debate about the future of healthcare.

Now, however, AdvaMed aims to “integrate the device industry into the larger fabric of policymaking in Washington,” Ubl said.

Some recent bad publicity about product recalls and the financial relationships between device companies and physicians illustrates the need for AdvaMed to pay closer attention to these matters, Ubl conceded. AdvaMed wants to avoid stains on its reputation such as those suffered by drug makers in recent years, he said.

Moreover, growing concern about escalating healthcare spending has focused more scrutiny on the value of new technology, which threatens the bottom lines of AdvaMed’s members. The group’s central challenge will be to convince Medicare, private health insurers and Congress that the extra cost is worth it, Ubl said.