Health groups say Medicare letter misrepresented views

Allies of the pharmaceutical industry appear to have misrepresented the views of certain advocacy groups by listing them as supporters of a big lobbying push that they actually oppose.

Some liberal healthcare advocates are charging the drug industry with artificially inflating its grassroots support in a bid to stop Congress from pursuing Medicare cuts that would hurt the industry’s bottom line. 

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At issue is a routine-seeming letter spearheaded by RetireSafe, a nonprofit healthcare advocacy group funded in part by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the main lobbying group for drugmakers. 

The letter, sent out last month, opposed calls to let Medicare negotiate the prices it pays for prescription drugs, and listed more than 300 patient and advocacy groups as opposing Medicare price negotiations. 

But a handful of those groups actually support Medicare price negotiations and said they had no idea they were being included on a letter to the contrary. 

Alissa Manzoeillo, outreach director for Doctors for America, said her group supports Medicare price negotiations and never agreed to sign last month’s letter. 

The American Association of University Women has also supported Medicare price controls in the past. “We definitely did not agree to sign on to that letter,” a spokeswoman said. 

Mike Stagg, the director of an advocacy group called Forward Louisiana, said his group hasn’t taken a position on the issue and wasn’t aware that it was being included in the letter opposing price negotiations. 

“We’re not involved in that issue, weren’t involved in the letter,” Stagg said. He said he was “never asked to sign a letter, never shown a letter.” 

The organization does work on healthcare advocacy — its focus now is on promoting the healthcare law’s Medicaid expansion in Louisiana. But Medicare price controls aren’t part of the group’s agenda, Stagg said. 

“That’s PhRMA’s deal, and we’re not working with PhRMA on anything,” he said. ”We haven’t taken any position on that issue at all.” 

RetireSafe President Thair Phillips said he would look into the discrepancies, and said the group generally works hard to ensure it has a backup of all contacts. Phillips would not discuss RetireSafe’s funding, political activity or connections to the drug industry. 

No pharmaceutical companies were listed among the 300-plus groups that signed the recent letter, nor was PhRMA. 

In 2004, RetireSafe was part of a GOP lobbying firm’s plan to pay healthcare consultants $4,000 to find seniors who were willing to lend public support to the Medicare drug benefit. More recently, the group has spent heavily to directly support Republican lawmakers, particularly on healthcare issues. 

The advocacy group Health Care for America Now (HCAN) said RetireSafe’s presence on the letter raised red flags. For example, why did it include Occupy Baton Rouge, an offshoot of the decidedly anti-corporate Occupy Wall Street? 

“There are certain groups where we were incredulous they would actually sign the letter,” HCAN Executive Director Ethan Rome said. 

HCAN surveyed about 20 of the groups listed on the letter, five of which said they had not agreed to be included. 

The RetireSafe letter included a host of patient groups like the Alliance for Patient Access and the Multiple Sclerosis Association of America that advocate for quicker access to new drugs, often targeting specific diseases or patients. 

There is often a genuine policy alliance between patient groups and drugmakers, both of which have an interest in seeing new, innovative products developed and approved. 

Tim Jost, a law professor at Washington and Lee University, noticed that several prominent and well-respected patient groups were missing from the letter, making him question how much of the coalition was simply orchestrated by the pharmaceutical industry and its public-relations firms. 

It’s extremely common for lobbying stakeholders and their allies to send this sort of letter, hoping to demonstrate a groundswell of support for their priorities. Those long sign-ons often include a host of obscure names, and they’re often beefed up with a lot of state-based organizations. 

Five mistakes in a list of 330-plus organizations wouldn’t always be a big deal. But the RetireSafe letter on Medicare drug coverage hit a nerve with progressives because of the pharmaceutical industry’s history with RetireSafe — and because imposing Medicare price controls is one of Democrats’ biggest healthcare priorities. 

“They’re trying to ward off one of the most likely changes,” HCAN’s Rome said. 

President Obama has endorsed a toned-down version of Medicare price negotiations. His plan would allow certain low-income seniors to take advantage of the rebates that drug companies offer to state Medicaid programs. 

That would save the government $137 billion over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office. 

The pharmaceutical industry supported Obama’s signature healthcare law only on the condition that it would not include Medicare rebates, and the proposal remains a non-starter for congressional Republicans. 

Still, Obama plugged the proposal again in his State of the Union speech in February. And it could find new life as part of a bipartisan “grand bargain” to reduce entitlement spending.