WASHINGTON — A drug pricing advocacy group on Thursday announced a roughly $1 million ad campaign to boost a Trump administration proposal to align American drug prices with those in other wealthy nations, providing an outside boost to a policy concept that the drug industry has vocally opposed.
The same advocacy group, Patients for Affordable Drugs, spent $10 million via its political arm to endorse midterm election candidates it said were working to lower drug costs — and to oppose candidates it said were in bed with industry.
Though the group has supported both Republican and Democratic candidates in the past, this ad buy represents most explicit endorsement to date of a Trump administration policy.
“Big Pharma’s greed is forcing hard working Americans to choose between groceries and their medications,” said the group’s executive director Ben Wakana, who worked at the Department of Health and Human Services during the Obama administration. “HHS has a promising plan to use an International Pricing Index to bring U.S. drug prices more in line with drug prices in other wealthy countries.”
The ad campaign touts health secretary Alex Azar’s plan to limit Medicare payments for physician-administered drugs to roughly 26 percent above prices in certain developed nations, compared to 80 percent today.
The ads feature patients who describe the need to lower drug costs in personal terms. They will run on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Google, and some of the funding will also support “patient fly-ins, research, and videos,” Wakana said.
A poll this month conducted by Patients for Affordable Drugs found nearly 80 percent of voters surveyed supported the Trump administration proposal as described, though the polling question did not include policy alternatives or criticism of the proposal.
Republicans largely oppose the concept of “importing foreign price controls,” — but they have mostly held their fire since the policy rollout last year. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the new Senate Finance Committee chairman, expressed his own opposition just this week.
“Initially, I don’t want foreign countries setting our drug prices,” Grassley said at a press event. “What can he do to modify that, so that principle isn’t violated?”
The drug industry, meanwhile, has called the proposal a threat to patient access, citing examples from foreign markets in which cutting-edge but expensive cancer medications remain unavailable. Thursday, U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue added his own criticism, saying he and his titanic lobbying organization would oppose “price controls.”
The international reference pricing proposal could become a proof point for Capitol Hill’s current thinking on drug pricing: that Democratic lawmakers and Trump could make an unlikely alliance and put the Republican-controlled Senate in a bind.
Hours before Patients for Affordable Drugs announced its ad campaign, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Reps. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) and Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) announced their own version of an international reference pricing proposal, which would “require” the health secretary to ensure Americans pay no more for drugs than residents of Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Japan.
The bill, Sanders’ office said, could slash the collective price of prescription drugs in the U.S. by 43 percent.
The bill introduction and Patients for Affordable Drugs’ ad campaign came after a week in which the Trump administration expressed widespread frustration that numerous drug companies had hiked prices to begin 2019.
Azar did applaud three companies — Merck, Gilead, and Amgen (AMGN) — for what he said were responsible pricing practices, but said “all options are on the table” in ensuring prices come down and pledged to work with Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill until they do.