Brendan Buck throws elbows on K St.

Greg Nash

Brendan Buck is turning up the heat in K Street’s biggest healthcare clash.

The former spokesman for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has become the tip of the spear for health insurance companies, as they battle over the price of blockbuster drugs.

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 The debate is making national headlines, with insurers calling attention to drugs that they say are outrageously priced.

“They can’t defend the prices without blushing,” Buck, 32, said of the drug companies. “Levelheaded folks [at the drug lobby] have to know that they’re asking for trouble.” 

The former Boehner aide was seen as the perfect spokesman to lead the charge for America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) in its public feud with the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), the equally powerful lobbying arm of the drug industry.

Well-known to political reporters, Buck cut his teeth as the brash and often wry link between the Speaker’s office and the White House press pool. 

In that role, he developed a reputation for clever tweets and punchy email subject lines that nabbed the attention of harried reporters. 

“The White House press aren’t there to pay attention to Capitol Hill, so I had to find a way to break through the clutter,” he said. 

“If you go by the old rules, you’re more likely to be ignored. … You have to look for interesting and creative ways to break through.” 

Buck has brought new energy to AHIP, a powerful lobby group that has played a leading role in every major healthcare debate in modern times, including the fights over Bill Clinton’s healthcare plan and ObamaCare.

The transition at AHIP took place this spring, after a positive finish to the first ObamaCare enrollment period gave insurers time to breathe. 

AHIP had also won another reprieve from Medicare Advantage cuts ordered by the healthcare law, a major press and lobbying victory that happened before Buck’s arrival. 

With those issues off the table for now, high-priced specialty drugs quickly became Topic No. 1 at the insurance group.

With Buck’s help, the poster child for AHIP’s campaign has become Sovaldi, a medication to treat hepatitis C that costs $1,000 per pill.

On Wednesday, Sovaldi’s maker Gilead reported $3.48 billion in sales of the drug during the second quarter in what The Wall Street Journal described as the “best-selling prescription drug launch in history.” 

Buck responded quickly, circulating a statement that said Sovaldi should lower the price of the drug now that the company is “obliterating sales records.”

 The publicity push has paid off, with pieces critical of Sovaldi’s price spurring questions from Capitol Hill and the media about the drug’s cost.

Perhaps most notable was a lead editorial in USA Today published last week.  

“Sovaldi comes with a cure rate as high as 90 percent for a disease that afflicts 3 million people in the United States,” the piece stated. 

“But it also comes with a scary side effect. … Because the pills must be taken once a day for 12 weeks, the cost of treatment comes to [more than] $84,000.” 

Buck sent the op-ed to reporters with the subject line “America’s newspaper” and no additional comment. 

PhRMA has jumped to Sovaldi’s defense, even though Gilead is not a member. 

Their primary argument is simple: The healthcare system needs cures, and they are incredibly expensive to develop. 

“You can’t just look at the price of the drug and completely ignore the value it provides, not only to patients but to the healthcare system,” said PhRMA spokesman Robert Zirkelbach, who was notably Buck’s direct predecessor at AHIP. 

“We spend $30 billion every year treating patients with hepatitis C, and that amount is due to almost triple over the next 20 years. The cost of not curing hep. C is unsustainable,” he said. 

The stakes are high for both sides, with lawmakers and regulators taking an interest in the debate and considering whether action should be taken on drug prices.

In the meantime, Buck is eager to highlight the potential consequences of high prices for all the specialty drugs currently in development. 

“They don’t have a lot of incentive to rein it in,” he said of drugmakers, referring to the healthcare law’s limits on out-of-pocket costs for consumers.

“They know health plans and government programs are on the hook. … As a result, states are going to have to make trade-offs.” 

AHIP is also concerned about the implications of drug prices for Medicare Part D. 

“We are encouraging [drug] companies to be transparent. Otherwise, they’re inviting government intervention, and nobody wants that,” Buck said. 

It’s a fair fight between the two industries, especially given Zirkelbach’s history of winning battles for AHIP.

As to Buck’s approach, time will tell whether it helps the insurers gain the upper hand.

“I don’t know what the rules used to be, but I bring a political background, and everyone here has been really supportive of mixing it up a little,” he said. 

“I’m sort of sarcastic by nature. I enjoy a little snark.”