Big Pharma's lobbyists are losing despite their 'pass the buck' campaigns

Big Pharma's lobbyists are losing despite their 'pass the buck' campaigns
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As policymakers and the administration focus on high drug prices, the brand drugmaker lobby has responded by unleashing millions of dollars in an attempt to shift blame.

They’ve blamed price gouging scandals on a “broken system” and claim to want to reform. They bankroll more than 1,400 lobbyists along with many “patient groups” and so-called “experts” to carry these messages to the media outlets and politicians on whom they lavish millions in advertising dollars and campaign contributions.

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However, their polling numbers remain as low as before their advertising blitz began as Americans have overwhelmingly negative views of drugmakers and the pricing schemes of “Pharma Bro" Martin Shkreli and others who increased drug prices simply because they found that they could.

 

The response from the drugmaker lobby has been to rollout slick public relations slogans like “Share the Savings” and “Let's Talk About Cost” that use fancy infographics in an attempt to move the conversation away from those setting the price of the drug (drug companies) to everyone else who uses or pays for their products, like employers, hospitals, pharmacy benefit managers, insurers, and others.

 This isn’t surprising and certainly not unpredictable, but ignores the basic challenge facing drug companies: no amount of money can change the fact that Republicans and Democrats know the problem is high drug prices and that drugmakers alone set those prices.

So despite all this overwhelming lobbying and financial firepower, the question remains: Why are drugmakers losing?

In the recent budget bill, drugmakers were singled out by both parties to pay billions more in discounts to help seniors in the Medicare prescription drug benefit “donut hole.”

 This comes as states across the country are taking a harder look at drugmaker pricing schemes and passing legislation in California and Nevada that faced significant pushback from drug companies (and their surrogates).  

Like the emperor who wore no clothes, drugmakers have confused politician’s fear of speaking out against them with support for their pricing practices. It appears that most politicians will tolerate, but not believe in the drug lobby's messages or goals.

Drug manufacturers have a number of options to alter public perception of their pricing strategies. They can assert that their products are a great value at any price but there is definitely a level where that argument fails. They can also compete on price and refrain from automatic pricing increases that obviously impact healthcare affordability.

Instead, they peddle distracting narratives and government mandates that undermine federal programs and result in huge industry profit windfalls. One recent example would be to prevent brand discounts and rebates from being used to lower premiums for seniors.

According to the White House’s budget proposal, this mandate alone would cost the government about more than $42 billion and lead to higher premiums for Medicare beneficiaries.

This is yet another distraction from the real problem of excessive drug pricing. If the drugmakers were truly concerned about affordability, the drug companies would simply reduce their prices. That would have a direct impact on the cost of health care to every American consumer.

Simply put, drugmakers have failed to give policymakers the one thing they need: real solutions that reduce costs. They’ve offered no solutions that score savings — in fact, they all raise costs.  

Their relentless, ongoing PR blitz is simply an effort to pass the buck and direct attention away from their pricing strategies. The drug lobby has underestimated the one politician, with whom their money and power doesn’t carry much weight: President TrumpDonald John TrumpArizona GOP Senate candidate defends bus tour with far-right activist Alyssa Milano protests Kavanaugh in 'Handmaid's Tale' costume Bomb in deadly Yemen school bus attack was manufactured by US firm: report MORE. It was only last year that he said drugmakers were “getting away with murder.”

If the record is any indicator, he still thinks Big Pharma is one of the creatures lurking in the swamp he intends to drain.

John Jones is a licensed attorney and pharmacist. He served as the senior vice president of professional practice and pharmacy policy at OptumRx, a UnitedHealth Group Company, in Irvine, California. He currently teaches Pharmacy Law and Ethics at multiple colleges of pharmacy in California.