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A skirmish over drug pricing escalated Monday when the pharmaceutical industry filed a lawsuit to prevent consumer activists in Ohio from pursuing a ballot measure designed to lower the cost of medicines.

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America contends that the activists failed to legally obtain the signatures needed to get their measure on the state ballot. Known as the Ohio Drug Price Relief Act, the proposal would require the state to pay no more for medicines than the US Department of Veterans Affairs. Currently, the VA gets a 24 percent discount off average manufacturer prices.


“We have serious reservations about this proposed statute, starting with the troubling lack of integrity in the petition circulation process,” a spokeswoman for the industry trade group wrote us. Two other business groups — the Ohio Chamber of Commerce and the Ohio Manufacturers’ Association — also brought the lawsuit, which was filed in the Ohio Supreme Court.

The ballot measure is one of a growing number of maneuvers around the country to combat rising prescription drug prices. A similar measure recently qualified for the ballot in California, despite opposition from the pharmaceutical industry. And legislators in several states have proposed bills that would require drug makers to disclose their costs in a bid to challenge pricing.

The lawsuit in Ohio follows weeks of jockeying between the activists, the trade group, and elected officials over the process for gathering and approving signatures. Two months ago, PhRMA wrote to Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted to question the validity of many of the 171,000 signatures that were submitted by the activists.


Husted responded by demanding that state election officials conduct another review of the signatures, prompting the activists to file their own lawsuit against the state. Early last month, however, he reluctantly transmitted the bill to the state legislature after nearly 97,000 signatures were reviewed and certified. This amount exceeded the 91,677 signatures that are needed for the initiative to be placed on the ballot for the November election.

At the time, Husted wrote several Ohio legislators that he had reservations about the overall collection process in which some signatures appeared “suspicious,” and that state law may have been violated. A spokesman for Husted referred us to the statement issued last month when he sent the bill to lawmakers.

In their lawsuit, PhRMA and the other business groups maintain that the activists listed false addresses, unlawfully altered signatures, and, in some cases, were ineligible to circulate petitions due to felony convictions. Not surprisingly, the activists and their supporters were livid.

“This lawsuit is an act of desperation by PhRMA and its well-paid minions, and (is) a clear indication that the pharmaceutical industry knows that they simply cannot win their case on drug pricing with the public at the polls in November,” said Michael Weinstein, president of AIDS Healthcare Foundation, in a statement. “PhRMA is going to great extremes to keep this off the ballot.”

The AHF, which is an advocacy group that runs 46 patient clinics in the US for which it purchases many medicines, is the primary financial backer of the ballot initiatives in Ohio and California.

While the ongoing dispute focuses on the technical procedures involved in winning space on the state ballot, the clash is really about the cost of medicines. In recent years, drugs for such hard-to-treat illnesses as cancer and hepatitis C have caused angst among public and private payers that worry about overextended budgets.

As we have noted previously, the pharmaceutical industry is also criticized for taking continual price hikes, while some drug makers have been chastised for buying medicines and quickly jacking up prices to new heights. But the industry strongly opposes any efforts to impose price caps or encourage negotiations over prices.

The industry is not taking any chances in California, either. More than two dozen drug makers, along with PhRMA, have so far contributed more than $49 million to fight the ballot initiative there, according to this document filed with the California secretary of state.