The bitter campaign over high drug prices in California is heating up as it’s winding down.
New polls show Californians deadlocked over a ballot proposition that would cap the amount some state health plans pay for medications. In an 11th hour bid to rally support for the measure, Senator Bernie Sanders is canvassing the state Monday with events in Los Angeles and Sacramento.
Meanwhile, his allies in the “Yes” campaign just put out a series of brutal online “Wanted” ads painting pharma execs as criminals.
The “No” campaign, bankrolled by at least $109 million from big drug companies, is touting editorials from top newspapers across the state opposing the measure. It’s also making the case that the price cap would save money only for select Californians, while forcing pharmaceutical companies to raise prices for everyone else.
The “No” campaign is also pushing an ad blitz of its own: It spent an estimated $48 million on TV ads through Oct. 27, according to a review of media tracking data by the advocacy group Consumer Watchdog.
Recent polls show the race tightening. A poll released last Friday showed California voters evenly split, suggesting that drug companies have won over the vast majority of the many persuadable voters in recent weeks. Another poll released earlier last week found the ballot measure had the support of 51 percent of California voters. That’s a far cry from over the summer, when a poll commissioned by the “Yes” campaign found that two-thirds of likely California voters supported the measure.
To counter this drift, the “Yes” campaign is trying to shine the spotlight directly on the unpopular drug companies funding the opposition. The “Wanted” ads, which will run on TMZ, Facebook, Politico and other online sites, target Allergan’s (AGN) Brent Saunders, Johnson & Johnson’s (JNJ) Alex Gorsky, Merck’s Kenneth Frazier, Pfizer’s (PFE) Ian Read, AbbVie’s (ABBV) Richard Gonzalez, and Amgen’s (AMGN) Robert Bradway. They run through various settlements and fines that the pharma companies have paid over the years.
“Court records alone show these drug companies have the morals and ethics of junkyard dogs,” Garry South, the “Yes” campaign’s chief strategist, said in a release.
The measure was launched and has been promoted by fiery AIDS activist Michael Weinstein. The “Yes” campaign has spent about $17 million, most of it from the nonprofit medical provider AIDS Healthcare Foundation and a state nurses association.
The ballot fight is believed to be the most expensive ever for a single ballot measure in California. It’s being closely watched nationwide for the precedent it could set for the industry. One industry consultant has written that the measure’s passage “would be a pricing disaster for the entire US drug industry.”
The chief questions at stake: whether the measure would actually save significant money for the state or for patients. The “No” campaign warns of dire consequences if the measure passes, like reduced access to drugs and higher prices for veterans, but the “Yes” campaign says those things will only happen if the drug makers choose to make patients suffer. An independent analysis from the state Legislative Analyst’s Office deemed the size of any savings from the measure to be “highly uncertain.”