Friday, March 14, 2008

Dems Equally Putty in PhRMA's Hands; More on That Bus

Jeffrey Birnbaum writes in the Washington Post (you may need to register to view the article) that anyone imagining that with Democrats in control of Congress, we'd start to see legislation that reduces the power and influence of Pharma, should think again:

Birnbaum notes:
  • how many former Democratic lawmakers and staff have been quickly signed up as lobbyists by PhRMA;
  • how PhRMA campaign contributions, previously 75% of which went to the GOP, are now being divided up 50-50 between the major parties;
  • how, as a result, two major Democratic campaign issues--buying cheap drugs from Canada, and using the bulk purchasing power of the government to bargain down Medicare drug prices--seem to be going nowhere in Congress
Birnbaum also notes that there has been some of the more old-fashioned horse-trading. PhRMA wants to see SCHIP expanded as much as the Democrats do (so more people can pay for prescription drugs); so it joined such pro-SCHIP groups as AARP and Families USA (ordinarily strongly anti-PhRMA) in working with the Dems to try to push SCHIP through against Republican opposition--unsuccessfully as it turned out.

Now, before we view this as just one more example of the ugly side of Washington where money rules--which of course it is--I feel a need to say something about the two "losing" issues, besides SCHIP. Buying cheaper drugs from Canada is believed by no policy wonk to be any sort of long term solution to the problems with drug prices in the US; it is a popular Band-aid, no more. And the failure to approve of government bargaining to reduce Medicare drug prices comes in the wake of data showing that the present arrangement of Medicare Part D has actually succeeded in holding down prices more than anyone expected. (Is the present arrangement good policy? Hardly. But if it is somehow working, despite all its flaws, the smart thing to do might be to give it another year or two before calling for a major overhaul.) So the real test of these new lobbying investments by PhRMA (increasing their lobbying last year to $22 M, up 25 percent from 2006) will come with more substantive legislation.

As a relative side note Birnbaum mentions the drug industry's Partnership for Prescription Assistance, which has sent its fancy buses to all 50 states amid much media hoopla, as depicted on numerous TV ads showing talk-show host Montel Williams. Reportedly this program has provided low- or no-cost drugs to nearly 5 million people. So is the industry really reforming itself and getting serious about the uninsured?

The "Partnership" was in force the last year I was seeing patients as a family physician (2006) and I could not tell that anything new was happening in the ability of my patients to get drugs at no cost. I had impoverished patients turned down for no reason after spending a long time filling out forms. My practitioner friends tell me that it is still like pulling teeth to get charitable drugs for needy patients, and involves the same paperwork hassles as previously (which the Partnership was supposed to reduce). Now I learn from fellow blogger Roy Poses about the campaign by a resident of US Virgin Islands, Carol LeKashman, to try to shame the big drug firms into allowing US citizens who live in the territories to receive charitable drugs through the program. She has to take a number of medications for her condition, one of which costs $600 a month, and was initially told that she could apply for charitable drugs as a US citizen; but later she was told that she was ineligible because she lived in the Virgin Islands. (If you want to help her in her campaign, e-mail her at

Bottom line: PrHMA is certainly doing a public service when it allows needy patients to get drugs for free. But its much touted "Partnership" and their buses seem to be long on PR for the industry and short on actual help for the needy.

Birnbaum JH. Drug firms woo Democrats, helping defeat their bills. Washington Post, March 12, 2008: D1.

1 comment:

Lisa Emrich said...

Thank you for shedding a little bit of light on the PR machine which is PPArx. I have written several posts about PhRMA and PPArx and feel as though I'm a broken record. The 'program' doesn't add any value and the 5 million number is laughable!!!

To access the collection of posts, go to Brass and Ivory - label PPArx.

I am so glad to see somebody else taking a stand on the illusion which is the 'big orange bus.'