In response to mounting criticism over prescription drug prices, the pharmaceutical industry’s trade group is running a new ad campaign aimed primarily at federal and state lawmakers in hopes of shifting their focus away from controversy over costs.
Under the banner “From Hopes to Cures,” the effort does not mention pricing. Instead, the ads emphasize the “value of innovation” and advancing science, while adding select patient stories. Several million dollars will be spent on the campaign, which will appear on social media — such as Facebook and Twitter — as well as on radio and in print. Ads will not run on television.
The campaign by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, which represents the largest drug makers, emerges as the industry is getting skewered over pricing.
And as the outrage grows, the pharmaceutical industry is increasingly concerned that some members of Congress may want to introduce legislation that would be considered restrictive. An oft-cited example would be to allow the federal government to negotiate the cost of drugs purchased for the Medicare Part D program, although such a move appears unlikely, at least for now.
“I think it’s late for them to try to engage people on the value question,” said John Rother, who heads the National Coalition on Healthcare, a collection of insurers, employers, and unions, among others, that have objected to rising prices. “Most people have made up their mind that prices are too high. I do think people understand that drugs are beneficial, but I just don’t know this campaign will change any minds.”
Last week, a Congressional committee held hearings on companies such as Valeant Pharmaceuticals and Turing Pharmaceuticals, which bought older drugs and quickly raised the prices to sky-high levels. Turing, for instance, last summer jacked up the price of a life-saving medicine by 5,000 percent, from $13.50 to $750 a tablet. In recent months, a Senate committee also held a hearing on rising prices.
The issue actually began accelerating two years ago when a new Gilead Sciences treatment for hepatitis C was launched at $1,000 a pill, setting off concern among public and private payers that the medicine would become a budget buster. Since then, price hikes taken by a growing number of drug makers have come under scrutiny, and high prices are now a feature of the presidential race.
And so, the industry trade group wants to influence the influencers and choke off the possibility that lawmakers will take action. Toward that end, the ads will also run in some states, a PhRMA spokeswoman tells us, although those states have not yet been selected. That decision is designed to counter moves by some states where bills have been introduced in response to rising prices.
Over the past year, legislators in nearly a dozen states introduced bills that would require drug makers to provide data about a variety of costs. Among them are California, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Virginia. Most of the bills have failed to make any progress, but there is clearly a trend under way in the absence of federal legislation.
Meanwhile, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo included a provision in his budget that would effectively cap prices and require drug makers to provide much of the same information sought in the state bills. And in Massachusetts, the attorney general threatened to sue Gilead for violating consumer protection law if the drug maker fails to lower prices for its hepatitis C treatments.
Whether the ad campaign will be accompanied by an increase in lobbying is unclear. The PhRMA spokeswoman declined to comment. Last year, the trade group spent nearly $18.5 million to lobby Washington, an increase of about 9 percent from the previous year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.