WASHINGTON — Patrick O’Connor wants to emphasize that he’s not running a shadowy pharma front group.
That’s why he’s attached his name to the group, the Alliance to Protect Medical Innovation, even as most of its donors have remained in the dark. It’s why he keeps repeating that the industry trade group PhRMA is not involved. And it’s why he agreed to sit down with STAT for this story, even though he cast himself as uninteresting.
O’Connor is the executive director of APMI, a coalition that aims to “help educate policymakers and the public about medical breakthroughs developed by the biopharmaceutical industry.” It hasn’t named its members, and while PhRMA itself might not be involved, BIO — which counts drug giants like Pfizer, Roche, Sanofi, and Johnson & Johnson as members, too — is. And it has been since the beginning.
But O’Connor takes issue with that word “shadowy,” — and he’s uniquely qualified to understand how important reputation can be in Washington. He spent about a dozen years reporting for publications like Politico and the Wall Street Journal, doggedly covering the ins and outs of Congress and legislative battles like the Affordable Care Act’s initial passage. He’s learned something about the gravity of a good reputation from the other side of the media divide, too — in 2016, he helped launch the strategic communications practice at the Republican lobbying firm CGCN, working on issues like taxes and trade.
And reputation is exactly what he’s planning to focus on with APMI. O’Connor told STAT that he wants to bolster the reputation of drug companies, which take big risks to develop innovative medicines, and shine a light on what he sees as an increasingly organized effort to go after pharma. The industry has come under intensifying scrutiny from the Trump administration and lawmakers in both parties for charging high prices for drugs.
“Obviously coverage of the industry has not been great for a couple of years,” O’Connor said.
But APMI isn’t taking on general reputation management for the industry — rather, it is directly positioning itself as a counterweight to the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, a nonprofit run by the Houston-based couple for which it has named that has taken an outsized interest in the nation’s high drug prices. Between their foundation and the advocacy group they helped to seed, Patients for Affordable Drugs, the group has helped encourage academics, journalists and even political candidates to keep the spotlight on high pharma prices.
APMI’s website has skewered the foundation, which has spent about $49 million on pharma industry issues, as being on a “crusade against the biopharmaceutical industry.”
“We recognized that the debate about health care costs was becoming increasingly one-sided and much of it was being orchestrated through a single entity,” said Brian Newell, a spokesperson for the trade group BIO, referring to the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.
O’Connor said that he didn’t want APMI to be pigeonholed as “anti-Arnold Foundation,” and that his organization has a broader mandate. He also said that the Arnold Foundation is “emblematic” of the coordinated opposition to the pharmaceutical industry.
Mark Miller, vice president of health care at the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, pushed back against the characterization of his organization.
“We are transparent and proud of the groups that we fund and proud of our advocacy on behalf of patients in need of lifesaving drugs,” Miller said. “We don’t tell our grantees what to think — they are fiercely independent — they even disagree with each other.”
O’Connor described himself as a “cliched suburban dad” — he runs in the mornings, reads in the evenings, coaches soccer on the weekends. And inside the Beltway, his work behind the scenes as a communications consultant fits right into the cliche.
He joined CGCN two years ago, launching a strategic communications practice inside the Republican lobbying firm, which has long worked for clients like Boeing, Goldman Sachs, Loews, and Microsoft. Firms are not required to similarly disclose the type of communications work that O’Connor has been doing.
When O’Connor joined, he envisioned his communications team working closely with his lobbying colleagues.
“What we’re hoping to do is work hand-in-glove with the lobbying side, trying to amplify what they’re doing on the Hill,” O’Connor told Congressional Quarterly Magazine in 2017.
O’Connor told STAT that while he initially thought there might be more overlap between the lobbying side and the communications side, it hasn’t worked out that way. He said that APMI fits squarely into the communications side of the business.
He’s done some of the standard communications work before, serving as a spokesperson for the appliance manufacturer Whirlpool when it was in the midst of an international trade dispute and putting out press releases and fact sheets on behalf of an interest group, the American Made Coalition, in last year’s tax reform debate.
The CGCN communications team worked with that coalition and started managing it in July 2017, O’Connor said. One of the issues the coalition advocated for was a “border adjustment,” an idea put forward by House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), which would have changed the tax system so that companies were taxed based on where they sold their goods, not where they made their goods. House Republican leaders withdrew the provision in July 2017, but a former staffer recalls CGCN working in support of the adjustment.
“The battle was not won, but did they possibly lay the groundwork to have a more thoughtful conversation about that policy down the road? Sure,” said the former House Republican staffer, who was involved in the border adjustment debate.
O’Connor has also built other coalitions, but he declined to say which ones.
“I can’t comment on my work for other clients,” he said.
Joining the veritable alphabet soup of health care advocacy groups, APMI appears to be one of the few voices, outside of the official trade groups, advocating on behalf of the pharmaceutical industry, which has come under intense criticism from politicians for charging too much money for medicines. When APMI first came to the public’s attention in October, reporters framed it as a dark money group, a front for the pharmaceutical industry. At the time, the names of the human beings running the group weren’t actually on the organization’s website, and STAT identified it as being run out of CGCN.
O’Connor said that the experience was a lesson for him.
“It was a good education in terms of the reflexive skepticism of trying to message from our side,” O’Connor said. “We popped our head up, and all of a sudden, we’re getting cast as this shadowy PhRMA-funded group. Well, we have no intention of being shadowy, and PhRMA’s not involved at all.”
O’Connor said that his group aims to respond to critiques of the pharmaceutical industry and also tell positive stories about medical innovation.
While he declined to name specific organizations involved, except BIO, O’Connor said that he has been in conversation with various stakeholders, including but not limited to companies.
“We are talking to a lot of pre-revenue companies,” O’Connor said. “These are like the most earnest people you have ever met. … The nefarious image just does not fit these folks. They’re all very smart, they’re all well-intentioned, they want to solve problems, and I think some of them are kind of like blown back by the tone of the coverage.”
But industry critics still see APMI as a shadowy front group — critics like Ben Wakana, executive director of Patients for Affordable Drugs (which received funding from the Arnold Foundation).
“If it walks like a drug company interest group and talks like a drug company interest group and represents drug companies, then it’s probably a drug company special interest group,” Wakana said. He called on APMI to reveal their donors, which, more than a month after the group came to the public’s attention, they have not done.
O’Connor is drawing on his decade-plus of experience as a member of the Washington press corps to try to shift the tone of the coverage he sees.
Before joining CGCN in 2016, O’Connor spent about 15 years as a journalist. After early gigs at ESPN and The Hill, he joined Politico in 2006 as it was gearing up to launch. He helped lead the site’s coverage of the Affordable Care Act, and, after a brief stint at Bloomberg, moved to the Wall Street Journal in 2010.
A veteran correspondent for multiple presidential campaigns — in 2011, O’Connor spoke on the phone with President Trump about his then-potential presidential bid while tending to his infant son’s soiled diaper — and for major congressional battles, O’Connor is familiar with the challenge of writing a nuanced story when an editor is looking for a clear narrative.
“I can’t remember how many times I’ve had to push back on an editor, particularly [at] the bigger publications, to say, that’s kind of a lazy narrative, it’s not necessarily true,” O’Connor said.
Chris Frates, who worked with O’Connor at Politico and now runs the storytelling firm Storyline, praised his former colleague’s journalistic abilities and said that they transfer over into his communications work.
“He’s a reporter at heart,” Frates said. “He’s not a partisan. He cares about getting the story right.”
O’Connor said that his experience covering the ACA also helped drive him out of the profession. He recalled many days standing outside the office of then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), waiting for a lawmaker to emerge and say something newsworthy. One day, he got lucky.
“I’m like feverishly typing a four paragraph story on my then-Blackberry, with the keys,” O’Connor said. Still standing in the Capitol hallway, O’Connor sent the story to his editor. But he wasn’t fast enough. The editor responded with a tweet from another reporter, who had already broken the news.
“I was like, oh, my God, this person just used this tool called Twitter to, like, post something, and I’m late?” O’Connor recalled. “I’m getting blamed even though I have already fired off a four paragraph story on my Blackberry standing in a hallway outside the speaker’s office? And I was like, man, this is getting too incremental, too quick for me.”
But O’Connor knows he won’t convince journalists to stop tweeting.
“I’m not asking people to tweet less,” O’Connor said. “I’m just asking for a little bit more context, writ large.”