WASHINGTON — The advocacy group Patients for Affordable Drugs had a near-perfect night at the polls on Tuesday, marking its first year on the national elections scene by claiming success in all but one of the competitive elections it had waded into.
The group’s sole issue, lowering high prescription drug prices, even provided a rare point of agreement on Wednesday in a deeply divided Washington. In post-midterms remarks, President Trump cited high drug costs as a potential area for compromise with Democrats. Sens. Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer — the Senate’s top Republican and Democrat, respectively — extended the same olive branch. So did Nancy Pelosi, the Democrat who will likely serve as the next speaker of the House.
Patients for Affordable Drugs is so pleased with the results, in fact, that its president is suddenly optimistic about working with even some of his staunchest foes.
In a conversation with STAT Wednesday, David Mitchell, the group’s founder and president, talked up Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), who could play a key role on health policy in the next Congress — and who P4AD spent six-figure sums to oppose.
“Maybe there’s a world in which her historical sympathies to drug companies put her in the center of things with Trump and Republicans,” Mitchell said in an interview Wednesday. “It could be that Anna Eshoo is in a position of helping get the job done, helping to broker deals.”
The spirit of compromise from Mitchell’s group — and from many of Washington’s most powerful figures — comes as momentum builds for aggressive action on drug pricing, even though the divided Congress has left the path forward for such efforts unclear.
The anti-Eshoo spending represented a small chunk of the $10 million P4AD spent on midterms races, though many of those ad buys served only as pushback against pharma favorites in safe seats who were, unsurprisingly, all re-elected.
In the four competitive races in which drug prices were a critical issue, however, the group’s endorsements proved savvy.
Rep. Pete Sessions, a P4AD target, lost to a Democratic opponent in Texas who campaigned on promises to let Medicare negotiate with manufacturers for drug prices. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, a veteran Republican from Maine, was neck and neck with a similar Democratic challenger as of Wednesday evening, in a race that the Associated Press still deemed too close to call. In New Jersey, the former pharmaceutical executive Bob Hugin came up nine points short in his bid for Senate.
Even in Delaware, where P4AD target Tom Carper coasted to re-election in a Senate seat against a longshot Republican opponent, the group boasted that his margin was far narrower than in two prior elections.
The results represent “a clear mandate to lower prescription drug prices,” the group said Tuesday night.
The bold words come from a group founded just this year, buoyed by seven-figure support from John and Laura Arnold, the billionaire couple using some of its wealth to tackle the issue of high drug prices.
Of course, the Democrat who focused on drug pricing and health care the most, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), lost her seat by six points. McCaskill was the only P4AD-endorsed candidate to lose on Tuesday.
But with Democrats and the White House singing the same post-election tune, Mitchell and the group’s executive director, Ben Wakana, said 2019 presented numerous opportunities in Washington and in state capitals around the country to address the issue aggressively.
“There’s a more favorable landscape in many states from Massachusetts to Wisconsin,” Mitchell said. “The political imperative to lower drug prices cuts across regions rural and urban. Voters want reform.”
A plurality of voters on Tuesday viewed health care as their top policy concern, according to multiple exit polls. Given that support, Wakana said, the group can now turn its attention to bills in Congress and state legislatures around the country.
But first, P4AD will spend the coming weeks focused on a shorter-term goal: countering the pharmaceutical lobby as it fights to attach a measure that would save the industry billions to a year-end spending bill.
With the House in Republican hands for only a few more weeks, the drug industry is widely expected to push for a change to the so-called donut hole, after a February law required drug companies to take on more of the responsibility for patients’ costs within a Medicare coverage gap.
In the immediate aftermath of the midterms — and with key pharma allies like Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) retiring or not returning to Capitol Hill — it’s hard to say whether or how that policy might advance. But Patients for Affordable Drugs isn’t shying away from the fight.
“We know pharma is going to take another run at this,” Wakana said. “It’s not a no — it’s a hell no.”