Congressional Democrats have for years been trying to pass a law to lower prices for some drugs by allowing the federal government to negotiate down the prices of some high-cost prescription drugs with pharmaceutical manufacturers, but so far they have been stymied by the pharmaceutical lobby and its allies in Congress. Public opinion polls consistently show that most Americans are concerned about the costs of their prescription, and they also indicate that majorities of both Republican and Democratic voters want to allow the government to negotiate lower prices.
As of yesterday, the pharmaceutical industry has a new talking point to use in its fight against government negotiations—one that may be compelling to policymakers who are receptive to perceptions of how their actions may impact communities of color.
“Over half of voters of color oppose government negotiation of drug prices once they learn about consequences for patients,” according to a poll out this week from the National Hispanic Council on Aging (NHCOA) and National Minority Quality Forum (NMQF), two nonprofits with missions to improve quality of life for people of color. To get a majority of the respondents to say they oppose allowing the government to negotiate with drug companies, the pollsters told respondents that it “could delay people’s access to newer prescription medicines”—a common pharmaceutical industry talking point. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office found that an earlier, much more expansive version of the Democrats’ proposal, House Democrats’ H.R. 3, would lower drug prices and improve people’s health, but that over the next 10 years it “would lead to a reduction of approximately 8 to 15 new drugs coming to market.”
NMQF President and CEO Gary Puckrein discussed the poll findings yesterday afternoon at an event attended by at least one member of Congress, Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas), that was hosted by The Hill, a D.C. publication that is widely read by congressional staff and other policymakers.
The new polling comes as the Senate is preparing to vote on a pared-back version of the drug price negotiation proposal. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) announced that they had struck a deal on a package of legislation that the Democrats could pass under the budget reconciliation process that denies the minority the ability to filibuster. The package would allow the government to negotiate drug prices, but unlike earlier versions of the proposal the lower, negotiated prices would not be made available to buyers outside of Medicare and it does not retain a provision that would have capped the cost of insulin. The new version also allows the government to negotiate on only 10 drugs, whereas a previous version would have enabled it to negotiate on a minimum of 25 drugs.
Schumer and Manchin said in their announcement that they plan to have the Senate vote on the budget reconciliation package next week. Republican Sen. Mike Crapo (Idaho) told reporters earlier this week that Senate Republicans are going through the proposal line by line to see if there are ways they can disqualify it from budget reconciliation procedures, which is generally only available for legislation that has a direct impact on the budget. If it passes the Senate, the legislation would then move to the House of Representatives.
National Minority Quality Forum, which describes itself as an “independent research and education organization,” is funded by the pharmaceutical industry. Since at least 2010, NMQF has received annual donations from pharmaceutical industry lobbying group Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) of between $25,000 and $442,000, according to Sludge’s review of tax documents. Its “corporate roundtable” members include companies that make some of the most expensive drugs in the world, including Amgen, Abbvie, and Gilead. Otsuka Pharmaceutical’s director of federal affairs and advocacy has a seat on NMQF’s advisory board.
The National Hispanic Council on Aging is also tied to the drug lobby. PhRMA has donated between $25,000 and $55,000 to the group each year since 2012, according to its tax filings. It has also partnered with pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly on initiatives related to preventing and treating diabetes among older Hispanic adults.
In September 2021, NHCOA President Dr. Yanira Cruz wrote an op-ed that was published widely by local news outlets arguing that older Hispanics would be the hardest hit by a decline in new drugs being developed as a result of the Democrats’ drug pricing reform proposal because they disproportionately rely on Medicare prescription drug plans.
Sludge asked both organizations if their pharmaceutical industry funding influenced their polling on drug pricing reform policies, but neither responded.
NMQF and NHCOA are far from the only groups serving minority communities that have gone to bat for Big Pharma over drug pricing policies. Groups including the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce signed their names to a September 2021 letter to congressional leaders expressing concern that the Democrats’ drug pricing reform proposal could “discourage the research that produces lifesaving treatments for patients” and calling for “a balanced approach to consumers, small business, and the pharmaceutical industry to ensure we arrive at a bipartisan solution.” The U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce both count Pfizer, Merck, and Bristol Myers Squibb among their members, and the Hispanic Chamber has PhRMA as a member.
Other PhRMA-funded minority groups have lent their names to more subtle efforts.
The Black Women’s Health Imperative and The League of United Latin American Citizens, both of which have received PhRMA donations, are part of a D.C. health care policy group called Consumers for Quality Care along with a range of patient advocacy groups with ties to Big Pharma. Its policy research points to other health care industries besides pharmaceuticals, like hospitals and insurance, as the reasons why the healthcare system is bad for consumers, and on the issue of drug pricing its only policy recommendation is for Congress to address accumulator adjustment policies so that prescription drug users who receive cost-sharing assistance can apply that assistance amount toward their deductibles and out-of-pocket maximums. Consumers for Quality Care has received more than $3 million in grants from Center Forward, a nonprofit that is heavily funded by PhRMA.
The National Minority Quality Forum and the PhRMA-funded National Hispanic Medical Association are also members of Alliance for Integrity and Reform of 340B, a coalition including pharmaceutical companies Pfizer, Janssen, and Genentech that is calling on Congress to curtail the 340B program that requires drug companies, as a condition of having their drugs covered by Medicare, to offer discount medications to hospitals and medical facilities that serve low-income patients.