US pharma lobby nears spending records with drug prices under fire

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Published: April 23, 2019 7:48:30 AM

The Trump administration has proposed new rules and approved a slew of new generic drugs, sending a signal that more ambitious changes may be needed to lower pharmaceutical prices for Americans.

Drug companies are facing an unprecedented threat to their pricing practices as the president and lawmakers from both parties have targeted the high costs of drugs. (Reuters)

Large drug makers and the industry’s primary trade group neared previous spending records on lobbying in the first three months of the year as President Donald Trump and Congress increased pressure to rein in the cost of medicine.

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America trade group, which represents 37 drug companies, spent $9.91 million in the first quarter, up from $6.03 million during the last quarter of 2018, and just shy of its record a year earlier, according to disclosures filed with Congress before a Monday deadline.

Drug companies are facing an unprecedented threat to their pricing practices as the president and lawmakers from both parties have targeted the high costs of drugs. That has become one of the few areas of bipartisan agreement in an otherwise divisive political climate.

The Trump administration has proposed new rules and approved a slew of new generic drugs, sending a signal that more ambitious changes may be needed to lower pharmaceutical prices for Americans. That’s spurred drugmakers to reveal prices of their prescription drugs on websites for the first time in a bid to avoid being forced to make even more public disclosures in TV ads.

Two of the world’s biggest insulin producers started offering bigger discounts — prompting Congress to call for more action and criticize the companies for waiting for so long.

Quarterly Increases

AbbVie Inc., AstraZeneca Plc, Bayer AG, Biogen Inc., Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., Merck & Co. Inc., Novartis AG, Pfizer Inc. and Sanofi all bolstered their first-quarter spending compared with the fourth quarter, according to the filings.

Novartis hiked its spending an eye-popping 450 percent to $3.2 million from $580,000, and that figure was also about 5 percent above what it spent a year earlier, the filings show. Merck spent $2.74 million in the period, more than 200 percent more than in the last quarter of 2018, but that figure was down more than 17 percent compared with the year before, when it was one of several companies to set a group record.

AstraZeneca, Biogen and Bristol-Myers all spent more than their year-earlier levels. Those companies and AbbVie, Merck, Novartis, Pfizer, Sanofi, Johnson & Johnson all disclosed lobbying on drug pricing, among other issues.

The tide has turned for drug companies in Washington after years of being able to keep Congress at bay. A February hearing before the Senate Finance Committee that called on top officials from seven major drugmakers was touted as a moment of reckoning that could lead to a clampdown similar to what Big Tobacco faced in the late 1990s. But there were few fireworks, with lawmakers largely refraining from bashing the companies, which blamed a patchwork of incentives for high out-of-pocket costs for patients.

One sign that the drug lobby was losing its grip on Congress came in the first quarter of 2018, when PhRMA was blindsided by a change lawmakers made to Medicare that put drugmakers on the hook for more of seniors’ prescription costs. In that quarter, PhRMA and companies including AbbVie, Bayer, Celgene Corp., Novo Nordisk A/S and Sanofi set quarterly lobbying spending records.

America’s Health Insurance Plans, a trade group representing insurers, spent $2.88 million on lobbying, including on Medicare for All, according to its disclosure. That figure was up more than 87 percent from the previous quarter and up 26 percent from a year earlier.

The disclosures generally don’t say what positions a trade association or company took on any given issue.

Medicare for All has become a litmus test between progressives and moderates in the race for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

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