Top biotech lobbyist: Industry under 'greater threat' than ever before

The top biotech industry lobbyist said his industry is “under a greater threat than it’s ever been before” as the Trump administration and Democrats in Congress set their sights on drug companies.

“I’m certainly not sitting here saying we don’t have a problem; we have a problem,” said James Greenwood, the CEO of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, the trade group that is the cousin of PhRMA, representing smaller biotech companies. “I’d say the industry is under a greater threat than it’s ever been before.”

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Democrats are set to take over the House in January after winning elections across the country on a message of health care and lower drug prices. President TrumpDonald John TrumpCorsi sues Mueller for alleged leaks and illegal surveillance Comey: Trump 'certainly close' to being unindicted co-conspirator Trump pushes back on reports that Ayers was first pick for chief of staff MORE has also attacked drug companies for raising prices, which the industry worries could combine with a Democratic House to create a perfect storm aimed at drug companies.

Greenwood told The Hill on Tuesday that he expects House Democrats to vote on bills that would allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices, while the administration continues to take action even without Congress.

He says his challenge to both Congress and the administration is to focus on what will actually help patients. The drug industry argues that the real problem is not the sticker prices they set, but the share of the price that patients actually pay, which is determined by insurance companies.

Drug pricing advocates and insurers say this argument is simply an excuse drug companies use to distract from their high prices.

Greenwood said his message to House Democrats will be: “Is this really helping patients or is this just politics as usual?”

“There was a campaign, many of the Democrats ran against drug companies. That’s good politics I suppose,” he acknowledged. But he urged Democrats to focus on what patients pay, not on drug prices as a whole.

“My challenge for members of Congress of both parties is, what are you doing to significantly change the out of pocket costs of patients?” Greenwood said.

Greenwood said industry needs to offer solutions and work with Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, rather than just try to fight the negative policies.

“I think it’s fair to say that [Azar] is waiting for us to come to the table,” Greenwood said. “And we very much want to. We recognize, I’ll speak for BIO not PhRMA, but we recognize that we need to have solutions.”

Pressed on the sticker prices of drugs, Greenwood acknowledged that those prices do matter in terms of the premiums that insurers charge. But he argued hospitals and doctors are a bigger problem in driving up costs, and largely escape the scrutiny that the drug industry faces.

“Does it affect premiums? Yes,” Greenwood said. “It’s a small portion of premiums. It’s not the driver of health insurance premiums. Hospitals and doctors are much larger.”

Greenwood said he will lobby against Medicare price negotiation in the House, and he is confident the Republican-controlled Senate will be a “bulwark” against some of the most harmful Democratic policies.  

But the pressure from Azar, who was an executive at Eli Lilly and previously a member of BIO’s board of directors, is unexpected, he said.

“We don’t have the typical backstop of a Republican administration here,” Greenwood said. “Alex understands the industry very, very well. I think he’s under a lot of pressure to come up with some things that he can demonstrate to the president that he’s working on it.”