- - Wednesday, July 4, 2018


Since the drug pricing scandals and election of 2016, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) has been on a media offensive. The goal: To obscure the true driver of increasing costs, which are the pharmaceutical manufacturers themselves, in order to keep drug prices high and their profit margins fat.

On the campaign trail, President Trump promised to lower drug prices through private sector competition. In a recent Rose Garden announcement he proposed a conservative, free market model of negotiating drug prices as the key thing that the administration needs to focus on to tackle rising drug costs.

Reforms can be made at all levels of the supply chain and the president said as much in his drug-pricing announcement. Specifically, Mr. Trump said that he wanted to look at the totality of the health system and recommended policies that affect all the players in the drug supply chain from manufacturers to insurance companies, to hospitals and retail pharmacies.

But some in the media are pushing back on the White House approach, accusing the president of picking winners or losers in his plan. Reporters at publications with financial ties to PhRMA are pointing fingers at other actors, such hospitals, retail pharmacies and especially Pharmacy Benefit Managers (PBMs), while reserving their criticism of pharmaceutical manufacturers.

Despite the fact that drug manufacturers account for 88 percent of the cost of branded drugs, while PBMs account for just 4 percent of the cost, media coverage would lead you to believe that this tiny percentage of a drug’s total expense is driving recent price increases. Using millions of dollars in ad buys as their vessel, PhRMA is helping shape the editorial bent at publications such as Axios and Politico, whose newsletters are read by top Washington influencers and policymakers every morning.

This can be witnessed in a recent Axios story about one PBM manufacturer, for example, that was riddled with falsehoods and inaccuracies. Using an outdated contract template instead of a bona fide contract, the author reached some very strange and inaccurate conclusions in his piece, specifically faulting PBMs for recent increases in consumer costs while failing to acknowledge the big role that pharmaceutical companies play in driving those costs.

A deeper dive lays out the extensive financial ties between big pharma and media outlets that have helped shape this kind of coverage.

During the 2016 election, for example, PhRMA spent $7 million in advertising dollars on its “Go Boldly” campaign. A good portion of these ad dollars flowed to news publications inside the Beltway. As the campaign matured, this partnership evolved into co-hosted events, such as conversation Axios hosted with PhRMA in November of 2017 sponsored as part of its “Go Boldly Campaign.”

Politico has also been the recipient of a significant amount of PhRMA advertising dollars. In April 2017, for example, PhRMA launched a multi-million dollar “Share the Savings” ad campaign attempting to cast blame on PBMs and insurance companies for the high cost of drugs. One of the main recipients of ad dollars was Politico.

Immediately before the president’s drug-pricing announcement Politico and PhRMA co-hosted an event “Deconstructing the Prescription Drug Supply Chain” and just within the last few weeks PhRMA has been the presenting sponsor of Politico’s Playbook, one of the most-read morning newsletters inside the Beltway.

Ad dollars don’t necessarily buy coverage, but it is hard to argue it’s not affecting a publication’s editorial bent when the very reporters who are responsible for covering pharmaceutical companies are co-hosting events with trade association CEOs and running their articles alongside drug company advertising.

If PhRMA can change the narrative, avoid any of the impact from the president’s drug-pricing proposal, succeed in weakening the bargaining power of PBMs and avoid blame for higher drug prices, then the millions spent annually in ad dollars to convince Congress that drug manufacturers are not the problem will have been well worth the price.

In short, the pharmaceutical industry and its main trade organization, PhRMA has been leveraging relationships built over several years with the mainstream media to shape coverage of Mr. Trump’s drug pricing plan to suit them. In his drug pricing speech, Mr. Trump said as much, calling out the pharmaceutical industry for using its money and influence to secure political protection and massive profits.

“The drug lobby is making an absolute fortune at the expense of American consumers,” he said. “No industry spends more on lobbying than the pharmaceutical health products industry. Last year, these companies spent nearly $280 million on lobbyists. That’s more than tobacco, oil, and defense contractors combined,” Mr. Trump added.

Those with influence over policymaking ignore these relationships at their own peril. Failing to accurately examine the drug manufacturer’s role in higher drug prices and the influence that they wield to protect those profits undermines the president’s goal of lower drug prices.

Instead, we could very well see the huge increase in drug prices continue unabated. If voters don’t see results in the form of lower drug prices by November, America’s future health care laws may be written by the party that is now fully backing a government-run single payer system, with the support of the Big Pharma lobby that endorsed Obamacare and is heavily funding the liberal media.

• Megan Barth is the co-chair of The Media Equality Project and national spokeswoman for MediaEqualizer.com.

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