As criticism of the pharmaceutical industry was mounting last year, Hillary Clinton’s campaign team debated whether to attack Dr. Robert Califf, who had been nominated to head the US Food and Drug Administration, over his ties to drug makers, according to emails released by WikiLeaks.
In a brief exchange of notes in September 2015, a few Clinton team members considered the virtues of picking a fight that would “fit into the larger themes we are trying to promote,” according to an email written by Brian Fallon, the Clinton campaign press secretary. And Ann O’Leary, a senior policy advisor, wrote that “we could certainly signal that we want someone willing to stand up to pharma.”
At the time, reports noted Califf was the founding director of the Duke Clinical Research Institute, which conducts studies for companies. Two years ago, several large drug makers partly supported his salary, and several others paid him for consulting work. He has also authored numerous papers with industry researchers. In any event, he was named FDA commissioner earlier this year.
The email exchange, occurred amidst a growing storm of outrage over prescription drug pricing and occurred shortly after Martin Shkreli became a national story when the company he ran at the time, Turing Pharmaceuticals, bought an old, lifesaving drug and quickly raised the price by roughly 5,000 percent.
The campaign strategizing also followed growing congressional interest in Valeant Pharmaceuticals, which by then had become the subject of increasing scrutiny for making similar moves to buy drugs and jack up the prices. By then, Bernie Sanders had seized on these developments to loudly and regularly criticize the pharmaceutical industry, which cemented pricing as a campaign talking point.
We asked the Clinton campaign team for comment and will update you accordingly.
The email thread, which runs from Sept. 21, 2015 through Sept. 26, 2015, suggests how the issue had become a factor in her campaign. After she tweeted on Sept. 20 that “price gouging like this in the specialty drug market is outrageous” and promised a plan of action, many drug and biotech stocks dived. The next day, O’Leary wrote “We have started the war with Pharma!!”
Since then, Clinton has issued a plan to contain prescription drug pricing. Last month, she proposed a federal panel of officials to determine if price increases for certain drugs are justified, authorize the federal government to directly purchase drugs, import competing drugs from other countries, and fining offending companies.
The plan, which was released after the most recent pricing controversy over the EpiPen allergy-fighting device sold by Mylan Pharmaceuticals, still needs to be fleshed out. But its release underscores how the Clinton team believes the issue, which served Sanders well during his unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination, remains a populist concern that may win votes.
To what extent Clinton, if elected as president, might follow through remains to be seen. Anxiety over the rising cost of medicines is an issue that is unlikely to recede, but finding solutions will be challenging. Given her penchant for pragmatism, she may pick a fight or two, but war is another matter.