Drug coverage called key to reforming healthcare

More generous insurance coverage of prescription drugs should be an essential part of any comprehensive proposal to overhaul the U.S. healthcare system, Big Pharma’s top lobbyist said Wednesday.

“Just getting insurance for everybody doesn’t do a doggone thing if it doesn’t insure the things you need and the things you ought to get in healthcare,” Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) President and CEO Billy Tauzin told reporters.

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Tauzin expressed optimism that the drug industry would be an important player in the coming debate over national health reform being driven by President-elect Obama and the Democratic Congress, and in a healthcare system with a sharper focus on prevention and health maintenance.

“Let me say it as emphatically as I can: The pharmaceutical industry and the products we make are going to be a major part of the solution to healthcare access and affordability in this country,” said Tauzin, a former Republican House member from Louisiana.

Like every industry in the healthcare sector, drug companies are trying to position themselves to be a part of the coming debate over national health reform.

“We’re pleased to report to you today that we’re going to be part of the debate,” said Tauzin, who declined to say whether he or his staff had met with members of the Obama transition team.

PhRMA faces a particularly skeptical audience when it comes to Democrats, however, because the trade group has historically been closely allied with Republicans.

That alliance is clearly illustrated by the fact that about 70 percent of the industry’s campaign contributions went to Republicans until Democrats took control of Congress after the 2006 elections. In the most recent election cycle, Democratic candidates got slightly more than half of Big Pharma’s campaign cash.

Republicans also are generally friendlier to PhRMA’s positions on the issues, while Democrats regularly use the drug industry as a punching bag.

“I hope we don’t fight those old wars,” Tauzin said. “We’re trying to get past that and we’re trying to get to a broad discussion of how we can better this healthcare system for all of America. If we get into old battles and old wars like that, we’re not going to be able to move this forward,” he said.

Like other healthcare industry lobbying organizations, PhRMA is trying to propose and support policies that could end up part of the final health reform package Obama pledged to enact before the end of his first term.

“We are going to be partnering and working with others in the healthcare sector, hopefully to focus the Congress and the new administration as soon as possible on the notion that healthcare reform is not a luxury, it is essential to economic recovery,” Tauzin said. “And we need to get as many people in this country insured for the right things and insured properly.”

Tauzin’s focus on the generosity of health insurance plans’ drug benefit is based not simply on increasing his member companies’ sales, however.

High — and rising — out-of-pocket costs for prescription drugs discourage people from using medicines, which leads to them getting sicker, which leads to more expensive treatments down the line, Tauzin said.

“We could really improve the insurance coverage for most Americans by working on co-pays,” he said.

Solving that problem is key to fixing the broken healthcare system, Tauzin said. “You don’t get there if you don’t insure medicines the same way you insure doctors and hospitals. We don’t do that in America today.” A typical insurance plan covers a higher percentage of the cost of physician visits and hospital procedures that it does for prescription drugs, he said.

PhRMA has not completely embraced Democratic principles on health reform.

Like most other healthcare and business groups, the drug industry is wary of Democratic plans to create a federally funded health plan that would compete with private insurers for enrollees.

“What we are deeply concerned about is if all of a sudden you decide to move to a single-payer system or you crowd out private competitors,” Tauzin said.