WASHINGTON — Vilifying drug companies has been de riguer among this year’s political candidates.
But for the pharmaceutical industry, today’s critic is tomorrow’s committee chair, or perhaps even president. And in Washington, tradition holds that early generosity, or even one small pre-election check, will be remembered by candidates once they are in office.
And so drug makers and others in the health care industry have responded in force during the 2016 election — contributing heavily to both parties, including to the very politicians who are criticizing them.
“Money is absolutely key for access, that’s the harsh reality,” said Wright H. Andrews Jr., a longtime lobbyist and former head of the American League of Lobbyists. “They are still going to make donations — directly, indirectly — or they will hire people who have.”
With that in mind, here are five things you may not have known about how the health care industry is spending its political money this year:
Drug makers and others are giving heavily to super PACs favoring Hillary Clinton
Overall, the pharmaceutical industry, biotech companies, and medical device makers have given less money directly to Hillary Clinton’s campaign than they had to President Obama’s by this time four years ago.
At the end of June, the last date for which complete figures are available, those industries had donated $594,000 to Clinton, compared with about $1 million to Obama in 2012.
But those figures don’t include personal donations from industry executives to the super PACs that can collect unlimited amounts of money and spend it independently of a candidate’s official campaign.
If you count those contributions, Clinton has raised much more money from the industry than Obama had by mid-2012.
All told, Clinton and the independent super PACs supporting her have already collected $3.9 million from the health care field, surpassing Obama, according to an analysis conducted for STAT by the Center for Responsive Politics. Trump, by comparison, has brought in only $82,000.
Some of the contributions have been significant. Priorities USA Action and Ready Pac, both pro-Clinton organizations, have secured $3 million in donations from DE Shaw Research, a computational biochemistry firm founded by David E. Shaw, a hedge fund founder who serves as chief scientist. Shaw is also a research fellow at the Center for Computational Biology and Bioinformatics at Columbia University.
Another big donor to Priorities USA Action is J. Steve Mostyn, who gave $1 million. The Texas attorney is well-known for pursuing lawsuits against prescription drug and medical device companies, including high-profile recent cases involving vaginal mesh implants and Risperdal, the Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) antipsychotic medication. And Laure L. Woods, a former clinical researcher in the San Francisco Bay area who works with several medical foundations, donated more than $5 million to the super PAC.
Priorities USA Action has reported spending more than $32 million against Trump.
There’s big action in the states
Pharmaceutical companies are concerned about an onslaught of legislative proposals percolating in state houses around the country, among them: changes to Medicaid programs to rein in the high cost of prescription drugs, intellectual property issues, and the fight over biosimilars.
Luckily for the drug industry, both the Republican Governors Association and its Democratic counterpart are able to collect unlimited donations.
In fact, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA, the trade group for the pharmaceutical industry, was a top donor to the governors associations and other groups working on state elections. Democratic governors netted $678,000, slightly more than the Republicans’ $600,000.
The Democratic and Republican governors associations are known as 527s, after the section of the tax code that governs them.
They’re not the only 527s to receive money from PhRMA. The group gave $445,000 to the Republican State Leadership Committee; $430,000 to GOPAC, which promotes federal and state Republican candidates; and $65,000 to the Republican Attorneys General Association.
Democratic state groups got much less from PhRMA: $100,000 for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee and just $25,000 for the Democratic Attorneys General Association.
AstraZeneca (AZN) Pharmaceuticals was also a top donor at the state level, with a total of $1.9 million given to various state political fundraising committees, including $695,000 and $765,000 to the Republican and Democratic Governors Associations, respectively.
Abigail Bozarth, a spokeswoman for AstraZeneca, said “AstraZeneca believes it is important to engage with policymakers, key partners, and the public — across all states in the United States — about the very challenging issues we face as we all work to strengthen our nation’s health care system.”
In particular, Bozarth said, the drug giant is concerned about a range of potential proposals that would weaken intellectual property protections, impose price controls, or require manufacturers to disclose proprietary information.
“Through both corporate and PAC contributions, where permissible, AstraZeneca supports candidates in both parties who share the company’s perspective on the public policies that impact our business and the patients we serve,” she said.
Pfizer (PFE) and Blue Cross/Blue Shield were also big donors to the 527 groups working to elect their party’s slate. Blue Cross/Blue Shield donated $2.3 million, and Pfizer gave $1.8. Both donors gave slightly more to the GOP than the Democrats.
Health care providers can rally to support their own
Political money overwhelmingly favors incumbents, but sometimes a challenger gets lucky. In the case of Dr. Roger Marshall, a Kansas Republican who defeated Representative Tim Huelskamp in the state’s primary, support from medical profession colleagues helped him over the top.
Huelskamp, first elected in 2010, has been controversial as a leader of the Tea Party Caucus.
Marshall, an obstetrician/gynecologist, collected the $5,000 maximum donation from various medical society PACs, among them the American Congress of OB-GYNs PAC, the American Medical Association PAC, the American Academy of Family Physicians PAC, the American Academy of Ophthalmology PAC, and the American College of Surgeons Professional Association PAC.
Forget what you’ve read. There really are no limits.
Even when they’ve maxed out on donations, drug and device industry lobbyists can serve as “bundlers,” allowing them to raise money from friends, family, and clients, and then deliver it to a campaign.
The Clinton campaign has released the names of some bundlers who have agreed to lasso more than $100,000 so far in this election cycle.
There are few pharmaceutical industry executives among them, but the list is packed with lawyers and lobbyists who work Capital Hill on their behalf.
Tony Podesta, the longtime Democratic lobbyist whose brother John is Clinton’s campaign chairman, runs the Podesta Group, which has lobbied for Amgen (AMGN), Merck, BIO, and the American Foundation for AIDS Research.
Sally Susman, a Pfizer executive who oversees the drug company’s PAC, is also in the group promising at least $100,000.
Lobbyist Steve Elmendorf, who represents the Federation of American Hospitals and Davita Health Care Partners, and Brian Pomper, who lobbies for BIO and Pfizer, are also on the bundler’s list, as is Elizabeth Gore, who lobbies for the Consumer Healthcare Products Association and Walgreens (WBA).
Podesta said he doesn’t think the tough stance that Clinton has taken on drug company prices will have a lasting effect on industry’s support, adding that there are too many other issues to consider, trade among them.
“I think she’s been tough about trying to find a way to create incentives for more pharma invention and also express concern on health care prices,’’ Podesta said.
In some cases, the health care industry is withholding support
The biggest congressional setback for the drug industry this year — other than the advent of Martin Shkreli — has been the Senate’s failure to pass a medical innovation bill.
A counterpart to the House 21st Century Cures Act, which passed overwhelmingly last summer, the proposal would have eased the path for drugs and devices going through the Food and Drug Administration; boosted staffing at federal research centers; and otherwise made it easier for the industry to complete in the world market.
But Democrats, in particular Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Patty Murray of Washington, have refused to support the legislation until it includes mandatory funding for both the National Institutes of Health and FDA.
Despite the dozens of optimistic press releases and announcements from Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee (HELP), and House champion Fred Upton, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, the measure is stuck.
So are the dollars. Pharmaceutical industry and health product PACs and individual donors in the field gave the House Energy and Commerce committee members slightly more than $2.4 million by the end of June, making it unlikely they’ll match the level of giving in the last election: $3.7 million.
The Senate has a chance to surpass its last election cycle: donations to the HELP committee are now $4.5 million. By the end of 2014, the industry had given $5.1 million to HELP committee members.
Murray, who has been the more conciliatory of the two Democratic leaders on the medical innovation bill, received $198,000 from pharmaceutical industry PACs so far this cycle. Senator Warren got zero.