PhRMA Plans Targeted Ad Campaign in Wake of Focus on Drug Costs

The ads will be targeted at about 7000 "influencers" including lawmakers who could control whether drug prices are regulated. Many have called for Medicare to gain the right to negotiate drug prices.

Unprecedented attention to high drug costs in the current election has the pharmaceutical industry ready for battle—and ready to spend money to do so.

The Wall Street Journal reported late yesterday that the industry’s main trade group, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA, will spend millions in 2016, up 10% from last year, on a highly targeted campaign to turn around its image. Drug makers hope to slow the momentum toward price regulation, including calls for Medicare to gain negotiating rights with the industry.

The report states that PhRMA’s campaign will be highly targeted at 7000 lawmakers, patient advocates, and opinion leaders that the trade group has identified as “influencers.” Ads will reach the targets on social media channels and through other means. It is likely that the industry has no interest in broadcasting its message to the public at large, which polls show is united along partisan lines in its frustration with high drug prices.

As for content, PhRMA seeks to portray the industry’s role in advancing cures for diseases like cancer through research and advancing medical science generally. PhRMA’s senior vice president of communications told the Journal that the trade group seeks to “make sure the patient story is front and center in any story discussion of the biopharmaceutical industry and drug costs.”

The Journal’s report, which was distributed today by the Campaign for Sustainable Drug Pricing (CSRxP), a Washington-based advocacy group seeking pricing reform, comes on the heels of last week’s circus-like atmosphere surrounding the appearance of Martin Shkreli, the former CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, before Congress. At 32, Shkreli became the poster boy for Big Pharma greed when he raised the price of a 62-year-old drug used by HIV patients from $13.50 to $750 overnight. He was arrested in December on charges related to his tenure at a hedge fund.

After Shkreli invoked his 5th Amendment rights, he sent out a tweet calling the House members who summoned him “imbeciles.” Democrats and Republicans were united in their disgust for his smirks and attitude; meanwhile, US Senator Al Franken, D-Minn., and several colleagues, including presidential candidate US Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., sent a letter to President Obama calling on the administration to fight high drug prices.

Part of the letter seeks “value-based” principles in Medicare drug pricing, to match reimbursement policies that take effect this year.

“Private sector initiatives testing the value of new therapies are already underway, and showing promise,” the letter reads. “However, these efforts have confronted challenging societal questions, including whether a value metric should consider impact on the federal budget, which requires public-private engagement.

“Your administration can begin this engagement by launching demonstration projects testing various models of value-based payments, such as indication-specific pricing, reference pricing, bundled payments, or other pay-for-performance models.”

Both CSRxP and the Kaiser Family Foundation have done polling in the past year on how the public feels about drug prices. Despite the deep partisan divisions that linger over the Affordable Care Act, drug prices are the single issue that unite Republicans, Democrats and independents—which makes the issue a potentially dangerous populist campaign issue in a year when frustration with “business as usual” seems to evident in both parties.

Developments and polling in 2015 found that:

· Three-quarter of Americans think drugs cost too much, and most people blame the pharmaceutical companies for the high prices.

· Polling in the early presidential states matched that of the nationwide Kaiser Family Foundation poll.

· In July, 115 leading oncologists called for a patient-led movement to pressure the industry to do something about soaring prices. The list of doctors who signed a letter published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings included Julie Vose, MD, the current president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

Research published in 2015 in The American Journal of Managed Care found that about half of cancer patients want to discuss the cost of their care with their doctor, but only about 19%. The research, led by Yousuf Zafar, MD, of Duke University, found that patients avoid the topic for a variety of reasons, including concern that bringing up the cost of care could lead to getting inferior treatment. But other studies have shown that inability to pay for very expensive therapy can lead to poor care, including patients’ failure to take the therapy that is supposed to be saving them.