Good Angle on the Drug Industry

The Washington Post connects some dots

Three cheers for Jeffrey Birnbaum, staff writer at The Washington Post, for providing a fresh look at the powerful drug industry lobby, and some of the surprising ways it is trying to exert its influence on the health care debate. Birnbaum showed that pharmaceutical companies aren’t waiting until January 20, 2009 to make sure they have muscle when the subject of controlling the price of medicines comes up, as it inevitably will.

Birnbaum’s piece went well beyond the usual fare, showing it’s possible to branch into new terrain about the drug industry, beyond straight business stories, political-contribution stories, and consumer stories, and into the industry’s vast lobbying and PR efforts, something that we at CJR argued for a few years ago in a story called “Bitter Pill.”

Birnbaum noted that the drug industry increased spending on lobbying last year by 25 percent, making it the second-largest buyer of lobbying services. But he also revealed that the industry—through its trade group, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA)—is engaging in plenty of creative ways to increase its sway, including activities that paradoxically woo Democrats, who have not been traditional allies of the drug companies, though the industry will surely do battle with Democrats in the end. For example:

• The industry has retained Democratic lobbyists at major firms, using a strategy called “clogging the system,” which Birnbaum says “prevents adversaries from hiring anyone from those consultancies.”

• It teamed up with unlikely bedfellows, the AARP and Families USA, which have clashed with the industry in the past, to help pass an expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) last year, a lost cause vetoed twice by President Bush. The drug lobby doesn’t really have a dog in the SCHIP fight. So the industry bought some good will.

• It’s busy projecting a charitable image outside of Washington, for example sending buses into every congressional district to acquaint folks with its low-cost or no-cost prescription drug program, which helps some low-income consumers pay the high prices for medications that companies charge in the first place.

The PR machine has apparently cranked out good results. PhRMA vice president Ken Johnson told the Post that the industry has seen “a significant uptick of support among working-class Democrats.” That uptick may also be reflected in a recently released study by the Kaiser Family Foundation which found that 47 percent of U.S. adults have a favorable opinion of the drug industry compared with 44 percent who view it unfavorably.

Bits and pieces of the pharmaceutical story are waiting for enterprising reporters with space or airtime to string them together.

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.