Big Pharma won’t be waiting for the nation’s two major political parties to hit the broadcast airwaves with their presidential nominating conventions to see which candidates will best benefit the profit-ravenous drug industry.
The big pill merchants already have pulled out their corporate checkbooks and rained millions of dollars of donations onto politicians across the country, mostly Republicans but also Democrats, according to Stat, the online science and medicine news site.
To no one’s surprise, the industry cash is going heavily to try to prevent Democrats, who already control the U.S. House, from seizing the U.S. Senate, and maybe the White House, too, Stat reported, based on its scrutiny of political spending by “23 of the biggest drug makers and the two major trade associations: PhRMA and the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, known as BIO.”
As Stat reported of its digging into campaign finance records:
“[Our] analysis underscores the array of connections between the lawmakers and the drug companies they regulate. Already in 2020, the companies’ [political action committees or] PACs have donated $8.62 million to individual candidates or their affiliated committees. The companies directed another $2.59 million to broader political groups like the Moderate Democrats PAC or the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and to other drug industry PACs, including PhRMA’s.
“Pfizer’s PAC has been the most active, sending 548 checks to various lawmakers and other industry groups — more checks than the actual number of elected officials in the House and Senate. Amgen and Merck cut another 405 and 379, respectively. The companies spread their cash far and wide: Illinois-based AbbVie, for instance, made contributions to lawmakers in 45 states, as well as the nonvoting House delegates who represent the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.”
The news site’s analysis also found this partisan lean for Big Pharma campaign donations:
“The drug industry has a clear stake in keeping the Senate in Republican hands — and its political spending in 2020 reflects that priority. The drug industry has showered $197,386 on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell this cycle, more than any other lawmaker. Its PACs have also thrown more than $100,000 each to five other Republican senators up for reelection, many of whom are seen as industry allies: Sens. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Cory Gardner of Colorado, John Cornyn of Texas, Steve Daines of Montana.
“The strategy is clear: With Joe Biden leading President Trump in early polling, and with Democrats controlling the House of Representatives, the race for Senate in 2020 may determine whether the party controls all three branches of government. That represents something of a nightmare scenario for drug companies, who in recent years have scrambled to fight off proposals from House Democrats and from the Trump administration to aggressively control drug prices. Nearly all of the Republicans that the industry is protecting face well-funded Democratic challengers, many of whom are polling competitively with Republican incumbents even in Trump-friendly states like Montana and South Carolina.”
The lawmakers did not respond to reporters’ requests for comment on their pharmaceutical industry support, about which Stat also noted:
“McConnell, the Senate leader, has expressed little interest in pursuing drug pricing legislation in the past four years — so much that he has ignored a major, bipartisan proposal that passed the Senate Finance Committee, declining to advance it to the Senate for a vote. In 2019, Cornyn, at drug lobbyists’ behest, softened patent legislation aimed at lowering drug prices. Tillis is a staunch industry ally who represents major biotech and drug manufacturing interests in North Carolina, and who has authored intellectual property legislation supported by drug companies. And while Cassidy has wavered on whether he supports a controversial measure to limit drug prices based on what drug companies charge overseas, he broadly remains an evangelist for drug companies and the billions of dollars they spend each year on research and development.”
Drug makers and industry groups are spreading their donations around, too, to select Democrats, notably those with influential and coveted seats on House and Senate committees with oversight of Big Pharma. Experts said this savvy spending will help keep ears, hearts, and minds open by opposition politicians and their staffers, even when Big Pharma may be in their regulatory crosshairs.
Industry leaders told Stat that Big Pharma’s campaign contributions are part and parcel of corporations’ civic duty, participating in the political system and advocating with First Amendment rights to advance industry interests.
The political stakes are significant, Axios, a news and information site, reported in a separate article. As its online posting summarized its findings about the big money prescription meds in 2019 (see chart above):
“The 10 highest-selling drugs in the U.S. last year gave away more than $23 billion in rebates to insurance intermediaries, but still netted $50 billion in sales. The big picture: The U.S. drug pricing system is filled with confusing numbers, and many entities profit off the flow of drugs, but pharmaceutical companies retain a vast majority of the proceeds.
“By the numbers: Humira, the rheumatoid arthritis blockbuster made by AbbVie, continues to generate more revenue than any other drug, due to AbbVie extending U.S. patents and consequently retaining higher U.S. prices. After subtracting about $3 billion in discounts that went to drug distributors and other supply chain entities, Humira generated about $21.4 billion in ‘non-discounted invoice sales,’ according to a report from data analytics firm IQVIA. Another $6.5 billion in rebates went to pharmacy benefit managers, health insurers and employers, leading to $14.9 billion in net U.S. Humira sales for AbbVie. Between the lines: Drugs that have more competitors usually offer higher insurance rebates than drugs with few or no competitors.”
In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also their struggles to access and afford safe, efficient, and excellent medical care. This was an ordeal before the pandemic, driven by the skyrocketing cost, complexity, and uncertainty of treatments and prescription medications, too many of which turn out to be dangerous drugs.
Americans have listened and waited for an entire presidential term for politicians’ promised action to deal with relentless price rises and shortages of desperately needed prescription drugs. President Trump has talked for years about his negotiating skills and his willingness to take on drug making firms. He has not. He has proffered a grab-bag of pronouncements and proposals without effect. Lawmakers held hearings and allowed pharmaceutical figures turn themselves into villainous cartoons — remember the smirking Pharma Bro drug investor or the profit-hungry senator’s daughter and EpiPen exec?
Yes, their escapades briefly generated sufficient outrage that Big Pharma foes saw a glimmer of hope for prescription drug pricing reforms. That was so 2016, however. And patients drug costs since have kept rising, as they have also struggled with supply shortages. This has gone on even as Congress has been rocked by its own scandals involving drug profiteering — and regulators have, critics say, gone squish in their oversight of Big Pharma products.
The nation is battling a lethal and debilitating novel coronavirus. Big Pharma has seen government money gushing its way, notably to see if medical scientists can develop a Covid-19 vaccine and therapies for the disease with record-breaking speed. Will research heroics rebuild Big Pharma’s public standing and give industry-supported politicians yet more sway over attempts to improve oversight of the giant, costly aspect of the $3.7 trillion-a-year U.S. health care system?
Here’s hoping that voters not only watch the parties’ political pageantry but that they also fulfill their democratic duty, researching matters of importance to them deeply, and then casting their ballots — and encouraging others to do so, too.