WASHINGTON — A crowd of roughly 200 progressive protestors planted themselves on the ground in the middle of a normally bumper-to-bumper four-lane corridor here Monday with a firm message for the drug industry: get out of our way.
The crowd wasn’t there — in front of the trade association PhRMA’s headquarters — to protest a specific drug’s price spike or an unsafe drug. Instead, they were seated in solidarity with the speaker at the front of the crowd: Ady Barkan, a 34-year old activist with ALS confined to a wheelchair
“I hate PhRMA,” Darius Gordon, a national field organizer with the Center For Popular Democracy, boomed on behalf of Barkan, who is unable to speak on his own due to his ALS. Drug makers “believe that they can stop us from passing ‘Medicare For All.’ They are wrong. We will beat them. We will whoop their butts.”
Thirty or so minutes later, activists had stormed the glass doors of the nondescript office building that houses the much-maligned trade association and covered them in printouts of crowdfunding pages created to pay for health care costs, costs which organizers of Monday’s rally insisted were the “direct result of the greed of insurance and pharma corporations represented by groups like PhRMA.”
While the protest felt at times like a primal scream at the drug industry, activists had gathered to show support for Medicare For All, the policy idea espoused by a number of Democratic presidential hopefuls that would cover all Americans under a national health care system. It comes as Democrats in Washington and on the campaign trail vie to prove they’re the party most serious about improving America’s unpopular health care system, whether by supporting Medicare for All proposals or, increasingly, by attacking the drug industry and its pricing decisions.
A spokeswoman for PhRMA declined to comment on the protest.
The protest, held by a slew of liberal-leaning health care and labor groups kicked off a big week for Medicare For All in Washington. On Tuesday the House Rules Committee will hold a hearing on the much ballyhooed policy. Barkan is set to testify. Then on Wednesday the Congressional Budget Office is slated to release its own analysis of the policy.
At first glance PhRMA’s nondescript Washington headquarters seemed an odd choice to hold a rally for Medicare For All, given the policy seems to set its sights squarely at the private insurance industry that would be upended, if not eliminated all together, by the policy.
Participants, however, disagreed, and insisted that PhRMA is as much, if not more, of an impediment to a move toward Medicare For All than the insurance industry. They say the industry has already devoted some of its infamous lobbying firepower to opposing the progressive push. PhRMA is a member of Partnership For America’s Health Care Future, a lobby group composed of drug makers, hospitals and insurers, staunchly opposed to Medicare For All.
*A spokesperson for PhRMA told STAT the group joined the Partnership For America’s Health Future “because we believe that the current health care system must be improved to help patients achieve affordable and accessible health care that fits their unique health needs.”*
Advocates also believe a Medicare For All system will rein in high drug prices. (Protestors on Monday named everything from EpiPen and insulin to the cancer drug Gleevec as examples of how the drug industry profits off the current system.)
And while Medicare For All clearly takes aim at insurers, PhRMA, too, would surely be shaken up by the policy. Medicare for All bills introduced in the House by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and in the Senate by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) would empower the federal government to negotiate directly with drug makers over the price of drugs.