WASHINGTON — A new dark money group with conservative ties has run more than $100,000 worth of Facebook ads bashing pharmaceutical companies and high drug prices since October, STAT has learned.
The group’s spokesperson is a well-known Republican communications professional who previously worked for President Trump’s Department of Health and Human Services. And its biggest promoter is the conservative radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt, who has mentioned the group multiple times on his morning show.
But exactly what “Citizens for Truth in Drug Pricing” is remains a mystery. The group has no website and appears to exist only as a collection of Facebook advertisements. In a telephone interview with STAT, spokesperson David Pasch declined to say who is running and funding the group.
“We’ve partnered with a number of people across the political spectrum who share our goal of lowering the costs of prescription drugs and plan to highlight this wide range of voices in the weeks and months to come,” Pasch, a vice president of the Republican communications firm Targeted Victory, said in a statement. From June 2017 to June 2018, Pasch worked as HHS’s director of digital media.
So far, the group’s ads have focused on highlighting drug companies’ large lobbying and advertising budgets, along with rising drug prices. To date, it has only run on the Facebook pages of conservative radio talk show hosts.
“I know it’s not a complete picture, anything that you’ve seen so far,” Pasch said.
Pasch said that he just started working with Citizens for Truth in Drug Pricing this week and that he would be able to share more information “in a couple weeks.”
In registration documents that Citizens for Truth in Drug Pricing filed with the District of Columbia in August, the group identified itself as a 501(c)(4) organization, which means that it can do political work as long as that is not its primary purpose, according to the Internal Revenue Service. 501(c)(4) organizations are not required to publicly disclose donors on their tax forms.
The group also shares an address with the D.C. office of the international law firm Clark Hill, according to a D.C. government database. The law firm did not respond to requests for comment, and Pasch said that he thinks Citizens for Truth in Drug Pricing works with Clark Hill “for compliance purposes,” but that he wasn’t really sure.
Currently, Citizens for Truth in Drug Pricing exists as a cache of Facebook advertisements on the pages of Hugh Hewitt and other conservative radio talk show hosts including Mike Gallagher, Larry Elder, Dennis Prager, and Michael Medved.
Four of those shows are part of the Salem Radio Network, a division of the Salem Media Group, a prominent conservative media organization. Medved’s show used to be part of Salem, but moved networks at the beginning of the year when his slot was taken over by Sebastian Gorka, the former Trump administration official.
Salem Media Group did not immediately return a request for comment.
The group spent at least $110,780 on at least 493 Facebook advertisements since October, according to Facebook’s ad archive. In February and March alone, the ads were displayed on Facebook at least 622,000 and up to 1.4 million times. Most of the ads ran on Hewitt’s page.
Recent advertisements called attention to last week’s congressional hearing, at which seven drug company executives testified before the Senate Finance Committee.
“Drug Maker CEO’s are being summoned to Capitol Hill to explain why prices are so high,” an ad on Hugh Hewitt’s page reads. “We have to stop drug companies from overcharging. Consumers MUST be able to afford the medicines they need to keep them alive and healthy. It’s time Congress makes Drug Makers put PATIENTS over PROFITS. No more pricing schemes.”
Hundreds of other advertisements linked to an online poll that asks people whether they support a statement that included lines like “What good is hope if you can’t afford it?” and “It’s time to tell the drug companies: affordability matters.”
Many of the advertisements criticize drug companies for spending money on advertising and lobbying.
Hewitt has also used his show to promote the group.
“Citizens for Truth in Drug Pricing is a sponsor of my program,” he said on a Nov. 6 broadcast. “I want them to understand that I support them, ‘cause I don’t like Big Pharma.”
Hewitt also mentioned the group’s sponsorship of his show on Jan. 29, during an interview with Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.); on Feb. 1, during an interview with health secretary Alex Azar; and on Feb. 5, during an interview with Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).
“I always tell people a once and future sponsor of this program is Citizens for Truth in Drug Pricing,” Hewitt said Feb. 5. “They hate Big Pharma as much as I do.”
Hewitt did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Prager and Medved did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
“I don’t think I have anything to contribute,” Elder said.
After STAT contacted Gallagher, an individual named Dennis Sternitzky eventually referred STAT to Targeted Victory.
Pasch, the spokesperson, declined to comment on Hewitt’s characterization of the group.
Pasch has worked for years in health care communications for a variety of Republican causes. Before his stint at HHS, he was the communications director for former Illinois Rep. Peter Roskam’s 2016 re-election campaign. Pasch also worked for Generation Opportunity, a Koch-funded group that opposed the Affordable Care Act.