Right af­ter Trump blamed high drug prices on cam­paign cash, drug­mak­ers gave more

“The cost of med­i­cine in this coun­try is out­ra­geous,” Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump said at a ral­ly in Louisville, Ky., two months af­ter his in­au­gu­ra­tion. He went on about how iden­ti­cal pills have vast­ly low­er price tags in Eu­rope.

“You know why?” the pres­i­dent asked, be­fore spread­ing his hands wide. “Cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions, who knows. But some­body is get­ting very rich.”

It was March 20, 2017.

The next day, drug­mak­ers do­nat­ed more mon­ey to po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns than they had on any oth­er day in 2017 so far, ac­cord­ing to a Kaiser Health News analy­sis of cam­paign spend­ing in the first half of the year re­port­ed in Fed­er­al Elec­tion Com­mis­sion fil­ings.

Eight phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal po­lit­i­cal ac­tion com­mit­tees made 134 con­tri­bu­tions, spread over 77 politi­cians, on March 21. They spent $279,400 in all, show­er­ing Re­pub­li­cans and De­moc­rats in both leg­isla­tive bod­ies with cam­paign cash, ac­cord­ing to FEC fil­ings. The sec­ond-high­est one-day con­tri­bu­tion tal­ly was $203,500, on June 20.

Bren­dan Fis­ch­er, who di­rects elec­tion re­form pro­grams at the Cam­paign Le­gal Cen­ter, said he found the tim­ing of the con­tri­bu­tions in­ter­est­ing: “I think it’s en­tire­ly pos­si­ble that the drug com­pa­nies sought to cur­ry fa­vor with mem­bers of Con­gress in or­der to head off any sort of po­ten­tial at­tack on their in­dus­try by the press or by the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment.”

Dur­ing the Louisville ral­ly, Trump al­so promised to low­er drug prices, and phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal stocks tum­bled af­ter­ward.

Al­though drug in­dus­try PACs have dif­fer­ent struc­tures and pro­to­cols, they are equipped to mo­bi­lize quick­ly to dis­perse funds to leg­is­la­tors.

“Writ­ing a check doesn’t re­quire much be­yond putting pen to pa­per,” Fis­ch­er said.

FEC records show Mer­ck’s PAC led the way that day, do­nat­ing $148,000 to 60 can­di­dates on March 21. House speak­er Paul Ryan re­ceived three max­i­mum con­tri­bu­tions to his var­i­ous PACs from the drug­mak­er, to­tal­ing $15,000. Be­hind him with $7,500 was Sen­a­tor Tom Carp­er (D-Delawre), who sits on the Sen­ate Fi­nance Com­mit­tee.

Mer­ck spokes­woman Claire Gillep­sie said the con­tri­bu­tions were “not tied to spe­cif­ic events.”

“De­ci­sions on con­tri­bu­tions are made at the be­gin­ning of a cy­cle and are ap­proved by a con­tri­bu­tions com­mit­tee,” she said. A White House of­fi­cial re­ferred re­quests for com­ment to the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, which did not re­spond.

Com­pa­nies may do­nate funds or lob­by ahead of im­pend­ing leg­isla­tive is­sues and ex­ec­u­tive or­ders, or they may re­act to some­thing a politi­cian says.

“Pres­i­dents get a lot of at­ten­tion to what they say,” said for­mer con­gress­man Lee Hamil­ton, who found­ed the In­di­ana Uni­ver­si­ty Cen­ter on Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Gov­ern­ment af­ter three decades in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives. “[Com­pa­nies] have to re­act to that and de­fend the drug prices.”

Over­all, FEC records show Mer­ck spent $242,500 on cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions and $3.7 mil­lion on lob­by­ing in the first half of 2017.

The drug­mak­er, which makes di­a­betes pill Janu­via, can­cer drug Keytru­da and shin­gles vac­cine Zostavax, re­spond­ed to out­rage over drug prices ear­li­er this year by re­veal­ing on its web­site that the av­er­age list prices of its drugs in­creased from 7.4 per­cent to 10.5 per­cent each year since 2010. Mer­ck said dis­counts and re­bates al­so in­creased, mean­ing it took home less mon­ey. But Thom­son Reuters point­ed out that the price in­creas­es out­paced in­fla­tion.

FEC records don’t in­di­cate why a com­pa­ny do­nat­ed to a politi­cian or what that con­tri­bu­tion led to, but when House De­moc­rats ac­cused Con­gress­man Ja­son Chaf­fetz (R-Utah) of fail­ing to sched­ule a hear­ing on pre­scrip­tion drug price hikes in 2015, The In­ter­cept­point­ed out that the phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal in­dus­try had been among Chaf­fetz’s top cam­paign con­trib­u­tors.

Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal lob­by­ing dol­lars have al­so swelled in 2017, Kaiser Health News pre­vi­ous­ly re­port­ed. In their dis­clo­sures, drug com­pa­nies list­ed tax re­form and drug pric­ing among is­sues on which they lob­bied Con­gress.

March 21 was al­so the date of the Na­tion­al Re­pub­li­can Con­gres­sion­al Com­mit­tee’s an­nu­al fundrais­ing din­ner, fea­tur­ing Trump as keynote speak­er. The event, which rais­es mon­ey for House Re­pub­li­cans, drew a record-break­ing $30 mil­lion from a va­ri­ety of in­dus­tries, the NR­CC re­port­ed.

But on that day, drug­mak­ers al­so gave gen­er­ous­ly to De­moc­rats and sen­a­tors, ac­cord­ing to FEC fil­ings.

Pfiz­er and No­vo Nordisk PACs do­nat­ed $76,900 and $38,500 on March 21, re­spec­tive­ly, to sev­er­al dozen can­di­dates on March 21, ac­cord­ing to their fil­ings. Five ad­di­tion­al phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal PACs spent be­tween $1,000 and $5,000 on con­tri­bu­tions that day.

The com­pa­nies say the tim­ing was co­in­ci­den­tal. A No­vo Nordisk spokesman said the March 21 con­tri­bu­tions from its PAC had been sched­uled in ad­vance “and in no way were tied to any spe­cif­ic state­ment.”

Pfiz­er spokes­woman Sharon Castil­lo said it takes three to four weeks to or­ches­trate and ap­prove a PAC con­tri­bu­tion.

“Pfiz­er’s po­lit­i­cal con­tri­bu­tions to can­di­dates and elect­ed of­fi­cials from both par­ties are led by two guid­ing prin­ci­ples — pre­serve and fur­ther the in­cen­tives for in­no­va­tion, and pro­tect and ex­pand ac­cess to med­i­cines and vac­cines for the pa­tients we serve,” Castil­lo said.

Pfiz­er’s PAC do­nat­ed more than any phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal PAC in the first half of 2017, con­tribut­ing $418,400 in all — near­ly 70 per­cent more than the first six months of the 2015 elec­tion cy­cle, ac­cord­ing to FEC records. In Feb­ru­ary of this year, the com­pa­ny’s CEO was among sev­er­al ex­ec­u­tives from drug­mak­ing firms and oth­er glob­al com­pa­nies to pen a let­ter to Con­gress in sup­port of tax re­form. In De­cem­ber 2016, Pfiz­er re­ceived a let­ter from the Sen­ate Spe­cial Com­mit­tee on Ag­ing, ask­ing it to ex­plain its price in­creas­es for the opi­oid over­dose re­ver­sal drug, nalox­one.

“Pfiz­er is com­mit­ted to ad­dress­ing the pre­ven­tion, treat­ment and ef­fec­tive re­sponse to the grow­ing opi­oid abuse in the Unit­ed States,” Castil­lo said, adding that the com­pa­ny is do­nat­ing up to 1 mil­lion nalox­one dos­es and $1 mil­lion in grants to­ward opi­oid ad­dic­tion aware­ness ef­forts.

No­vo Nordisk has spent $178,000 on cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions so far this year, or near­ly four times more than it spent the first six months of 2015, ac­cord­ing to its fil­ings with the FEC. The com­pa­ny is one of the top three in­sulin mak­ers, and in Ju­ly, Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) sent the com­pa­nies let­ters ask­ing them to jus­ti­fy their price in­creas­es. In No­vem­ber, Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Eli­jah Cum­mings (D-MD) asked the Jus­tice De­part­ment and the Fed­er­al Trade Com­mis­sion to in­ves­ti­gate the in­sulin mak­ers for pos­si­ble price col­lu­sion. The com­pa­nies have de­nied the al­le­ga­tions.

“We’re cer­tain­ly aware of pol­i­cy­mak­ers’ con­cerns about the price of in­sulin, and we’re com­mit­ted to col­lab­o­rate with all those in­volved in the health­care sup­ply chain to en­sure pa­tient ac­cess,” said No­vo Nordisk spokesman Ken In­chausti.

“From the pub­lic record, you can’t tell for sure” what prompt­ed the spike in po­lit­i­cal con­tri­bu­tions from phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies, said Tony Ray­mond, a for­mer an­a­lyst at the Fed­er­al Elec­tion Com­mis­sion who found­ed Po­lit­i­cal Mon­ey Line to track cam­paign fi­nance. The PACs could have been “killing two birds with one stone” by do­nat­ing to leg­is­la­tors across the board on the night of the NR­CC fundrais­er, or they could have been re­spond­ing to what Trump said.

“We’re talk­ing about a cou­ple phone calls and then they could couri­er a check over to some­one,” he said.


By Syd­ney Lup­kin and Eliz­a­beth Lu­cas. Orig­i­nal­ly post­ed at Kaiser Health News, a na­tion­al health pol­i­cy news ser­vice that is part of the non­par­ti­san Hen­ry J Kaiser Fam­i­ly Foun­da­tion.

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