Pill with coins coming out Mostof the biggest donations in the first half of 2019 have gone toRepublicans, who control the Senate and tend to be more reluctantto restrict drugmakers. (Photo: Shutterstock)

|

In the heat of the most ferocious battle over drug prices inyears, pharmaceutical companies are showering U.S. senators withcampaign cash as sweeping legislation heads toward the floor.

|

In the first six months of this year alone, political actioncommittees run by employees of drug companies and their tradegroups have given the 30 senators expected to run for reelectionnearly $845,000, the latest update to Kaiser Health News' "Pharma Cashto Congress" database shows. That hefty sum stands out withElection Day more than 14 months away.

|

Lowering drug prices is one of the rare causes that has unitedDemocrats and Republicans, and at least one proposal that wouldchange the way the industry does business could get a vote in Congress this year. One of the mostpromising and aggressive updates would cap drug prices underMedicare so they do not outpace inflation.

|

Related: GOP senators distancing themselves from drug pricereform

|

The number of big contributions and the lawmakers receiving themsignal the industry is building loyalty as voters push candidatesto talk about drug prices in the 2020 elections.

|

For the drug industry, the stakes are high.

|

"If the Senate flips" to Democrats, "then PhRMA's probably goingto have to double its budget," said Kent Cooper, a former FederalElection Commission official who has tracked political money fordecades, referring to the industry's biggest lobbying group, thePharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.

|

Most of the biggest donations in the first half of 2019 havegone to Republicans, who control the Senate and tend to be morereluctant to restrict drugmakers. And even those who do not serveon committees that oversee the industry or represent states withsignificant industry ties have benefited from drugmaker cash thisyear.

|

"We support candidates from both political parties who supportinnovation and patient access to medicines," said PhRMA spokeswomanHolly Campbell.

|

Several senators facing tough reelection campaigns have raked intens of thousands of dollars this year, with some collecting muchmore than the industry has given them in the past decade, ifever.

|

"If it looks as though somebody is going to have a tough run —maybe a friend, maybe somebody you want to develop a betterrelationship with — you put some extra money in place," said StevenBillet, a former AT&T lobbyist who teaches PAC management atGeorge Washington University.

|

Thus far, senators running for reelection have together pulledin over $115,000 more than the 27 senators who were running forreelection in mid-2017.

|

The biggest single beneficiaries were Sens. Chris Coons, aDemocrat from Delaware, and Thom Tillis, a North CarolinaRepublican, who took in a whopping $103,000 and $102,000respectively in the first six months of the year. Tillis and Coons,the leaders of a Senate subcommittee on intellectual property,have been working on legislation to overhaul the patent system— perhaps the most powerful tool brand-name drugmakers have to keepprices, and profits, high.

|

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) has been a vocal critic of the way some drugmakers use patentsto extend their monopolies on drugs and block competitors,introducing a bill that would empower the government to suedrugmakers for gaming the system.

|

Cornyn, who faces a difficult reelection fight, received about$65,500.

|

Another top recipient was Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, who isconsidered the most vulnerable Republican up for reelection in2020. John Hickenlooper, the state's former governor who droppedout of the Democratic presidential primary on Aug. 15, has decidedto challenge Gardner, further complicating his chances of beingreelected.

|

Despite Gardner's lack of pharma-related committee assignments,he received about $81,000 from drugmaker PACs this year, rankinghim among the top 10 recipients of pharma cash in Congress. Anothervulnerable Republican incumbent, Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, receivedabout $35,500 — a huge bump for a lawmaker who, before this year,had collected about $15,000 total during her first term.

|

Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) is also considered in danger as heruns for reelection in a state that voted for President DonaldTrump in 2016. Like Gardner and Ernst, he does not serve on keycommittees, nor has he played a high-profile role in this year'spushes on drug prices.

|

Peters received about $49,500 in campaign contributions fromdrugmaker PACs in the first half of the year, a personal recordsince being sworn in in 2015. Last year he received about $10,500from drugmaker PACs in total.

|

Congressional leaders, who also help fund the campaigns of partymembers, are a common target of pharmaceutical industrycontributions. And with Republicans controlling what legislationcomes up in the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, alsorunning for reelection, has seen an uptick in donations: Hereceived more than $85,000 during the first half of the year, arecord for him over the course of the past eight years.

|

Drugmaker PACs typically give to most members of Congress,regardless of party. But with Democrats pushing some of the mostaggressive proposals to regulate drugmakers, the industry may standto lose more ground should Democrats regain control of Congress —and political experts say that is a possibility. Democrats arelikely to make drug prices a key campaign issue.

|

"While it may not be true at this very moment, it may well betrue that the Democrats will have enough seats in play to reallyfight for the majority," said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor atthe nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "I think it's a tossup atthis point."

|

The 19 Senate Republicans running in 2020 collected an averageof more than $32,500 each from the pharmaceutical industry, whilethe 11 Democrats collected an average of nearly $20,500 each.

|

Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican who is agastroenterologist by trade and has been active on health careissues, received about $76,000 from drugmaker PACs in the firsthalf of the year despite the likelihood he will be reelected nextyear.

|

Pharmaceutical company PAC contributions are only part of thepicture, though. Dollars from individual drug company employees mayflow in the same direction, as well as "dark money" spending thatoften dwarfs what must be disclosed.

|

"The PAC contribution is a signal to other folks who areassociated with the industry," Billet said.

|

PhRMA gives hard-to-trace millions to American Action Network and otherconservative groups that buy TV ads and robocalls and engage inother political advocacy.

|

Drug prices have been among Americans' top concerns for years.Large, bipartisan majorities favor policies to control drug costs,including importing drugs from Canada and government negotiationsto lower prices paid by Medicare.

|

Prescription prices remain far higher in the U.S. than in otherwealthy countries. Prices for hospital medicines continue to rise.High-deductible health plans have increased the number of patientswho feel the drug-price sting directly before insurance kicksin.

|

New therapies such as genetically altered immune cells to fightcancer, which can cost $1 million per treatment, threaten to renewthe cost spiral.

|

The House also saw an uptick in donations from drug industryPACs during the first half of the year, with the Republican leader,Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, and the top Republican on theHouse Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon,taking in the most. McCarthy received about $89,000, while Waldencollected about $86,500.

|

Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, the powerful Democrat whocontrols the House and is working on a plan to empower federal health officials tonegotiate drug prices, took in about $12,500.

|

Kaiser HealthNews (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is aneditorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation whichis not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

|

Read more: 

Complete your profile to continue reading and get FREE access to BenefitsPRO, part of your ALM digital membership.

  • Critical BenefitsPRO information including cutting edge post-reform success strategies, access to educational webcasts and videos, resources from industry leaders, and informative Newsletters.
  • Exclusive discounts on ALM, BenefitsPRO magazine and BenefitsPRO.com events
  • Access to other award-winning ALM websites including ThinkAdvisor.com and Law.com
NOT FOR REPRINT

© 2024 ALM Global, LLC, All Rights Reserved. Request academic re-use from www.copyright.com. All other uses, submit a request to [email protected]. For more information visit Asset & Logo Licensing.