Pharma ‘greed’ emerges as a potent political issue in a raucous election year

Pharma execs aren’t the most popular people in the US these days, particularly when they keep hiking the price of their drugs. And a senate campaign in New Jersey is driving that point home — right to the hilt.

Over the last few days Bob Hugin’s political opponents fighting the Republican ex-Celgene CEO’s campaign in New Jersey have been running a bitter ad spot featuring cancer survivor Pam Holt. Holt notes that Celgene’s Revlimid costs a dollar a pill to make, and Celgene charges $600 for it, after more than doubling what it originally cost when it hit the market.

“He was the CEO of the drug company that doubled the price on us, while he made $100 million,” she tells the camera. “Now he wants to be your senator. But I’ll always know him as the guy who made a killing off cancer patients like me.”

Celgene has already indirectly come in for some pointed criticism from HHS secretary Alex Azar after pushing the price 20% last year. And now the company has reportedly followed up with a 5% hike, with plans to leave it at that.

That’s probably not great timing from Hugin’s perspective. Bob Menendez’s campaign floated a website called HealthNewsNJ to paint him as a greedy pharma exec. And the Menendez campaign chief has taken to calling Hugin’s pay at Celgene “blood money.”

Celgene’s heavy reliance on an ever-rising price for Revlimid to swell revenue is a standard strategy at the big biopharma companies. But these attack ads show that it has become a political hot potato, fueling a backlash with broad implications for all the big players. 

Just last week, after Donald Trump promised we’d all be seeing falling prices, Pfizer went ahead — like others — with price hikes on dozens of its portfolio products. Then the phone rang. 

The president called Pfizer CEO Ian Read personally to persuade him to delay a big round of price hikes on their portfolio, and got him to slam the brakes on the move — at least for now. 

Will others follow, or risk drawing the same unwelcome spotlight?

Hugin left his position as Celgene chairman to run for the Senate, and there’s nothing he can do about the price of Revlimid now. But he is pushing back against the attack ad. His campaign just posted a new 30-second spot featuring the father of another cancer patient who says the pharma exec provided Revlimid when his insurance company wouldn’t cover it for his son.

“It’s not the drugs,” he says. “It’s not the profits. It’s a very personal thing for Bob Hugin.”

Image: Bob Hugin at a primary election, June 5, 2018. AP IMAGES

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Research Scientist - Immunology
Recursion Pharmaceuticals Salt Lake City, UT
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Atlas Venture Cambridge, MA

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