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The importance of shaping issue understanding

- October 22, 2009

Time has a piece up on “How Drug-Industry Lobbyists Got Their Way on Health Care.” It is essentially about how BIO and PhRMA (the two major branded drug industry trade associations) managed to get 12 years of patent exclusivity for biological drugs on the House Energy and Commerce Committee version of the healthcare bill, instead of five years that Committee Chair Henry Waxman (and generic drugmakers) had pushed for. The Committee vote was a pretty astounding 47-11 on behalf of 12-year patent exclusivity.

So, how did it happen? The Time article notes that drug makers have been blasting Capitol Hill to make the case that 12-year patent exclusivity is necessary, arguing that drug companies won’t have enough of an incentive to develop new life-saving drugs without a dozen years of guaranteed profit.

According to the article:

The biologics lobby has become one of K Street’s most powerful players. Working largely through BIO and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), it has funded an extensive network that includes not only lobbyists but also think-tank experts and advocacy groups. “You can’t get on the phone with someone who isn’t getting paid,” says an economist who has studied the biologics issue with funding from a drug company. “They give money to everyone and anyone.”
That means it can be hard to find a truly independent viewpoint, though it often requires deep digging into the finances of advocacy groups to discover their ties. In July, one calling itself the National Health Council wrote letters to members of Congress “on behalf of 133 million Americans” asking for a minimum of 10 years of data exclusivity. The group boasts a membership that includes 50 of the nation’s largest patient-advocacy groups, including the American Cancer Society, Easter Seals and the National Kidney Foundation. But its board of directors reads like a Who’s Who of top pharmaceutical executives from Amgen, Pfizer, Novartis and Bristol Myers Squibb. Its 2007 tax filings show that almost half its $2.3 million budget came from PhRMA and drug companies.
Among the biologics industry’s most high-profile advocates has been former Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean, who is consulting for a law firm that has a deep roster of biologics clients. In July he wrote an Op-Ed in the Hill newspaper arguing for a “commonsense and fair approach” to give biologics companies at least 12 years of exclusivity. (“I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t believe it,” Dean, a physician, said in an interview.) His former campaign manager Joe Trippi echoed Dean’s views on a Huffington Post blog without disclosing that he had been paid by BIO to create two Web campaigns. (He also says his views predated his paycheck.)


The other side has resources of its own. The biggest generic-drug company, Teva Pharmaceuticals, has spent more than $2 million on lobbying and also sponsored academic work on the issue, aiming to disprove Duke’s Grabowski.

This article does a nice job highlighting the extent to which so much of lobbying is about trying to shape the understanding of an issue.

It’s also important to note that this is probably a somewhat obscure issue to a lot of members of Congress.

It would be really interesting to know how some members of Congress came to their decision on this issue. For example: how much did they know about the issue in advance, and how much had they heard from both sides? What turned them in favor of the 12-year exclusivity? (My guess is that they didn’t know much, and they heard a lot more from the branded pharmaceuticals)

Also: how much did drug industry lobbyists try to play on fears that 12-year exclusivity would prevent life-saving drugs from coming to market? Fear is a powerful motivator, and my guess is the drug industry used it well. I’d also venture to guess that they tried to make members of Congress feel like they didn’t understand the issue, and that they should trust the drug industry, because industry companies are the true experts on this issue. (and they only want to save lives.)