What's pharma got to say about pricing? PhRMA has some ideas

As pricing issues continue to drag on pharma's reputation, the industry is finally pushing back hard, starting with the industry's lead trade association.

While PhRMA says it's been engaged on the pricing issue for more than a year, the association has gotten particularly aggressive in its remarks since the Turing Pharmaceuticals scandal broke in September. As politicians and the public piled on, PhRMA firmly disassociated its members from Turing, noting that the company isn't a member and doesn't "represent its members' values."

Soon after, PhRMA launched into Valeant ($VRX), saying it and Turing run more like hedge funds than pharmaceutical companies. And just last week, PhRMA reps in Washington, DC, "argued that insurers, not drug companies, are forcing patients to shoulder more of the costs through higher deductibles and copays while also adding coverage restrictions," according to a report in The Hill.

Recent tweets on the PhRMA Twitter account include: "Focusing on 10% of healthcare spending rather than the big picture is misguided" and "Focusing on short-term #drug costs ignores long-term savings through improved health outcomes."

PhRMA as a lobbying group is not unfamiliar with pressuring for change, but it hasn't usually done so in such a direct way to consumers.

PhRMA's Robert Zirkelbach

"This is not something we've historically done, but given the focus and attention on these cases, and how far they depart from how our industry truly operates, we feel it's important for people to understand that there is a different approach other than what you're seeing in the news," Robert Zirkelbach, PhRMA senior VP of communications, told FiercePharmaMarketing.

Pharma needs to tell stories of innovation while also continuing to talk about drug costs as part of a bigger healthcare picture, he said. Zirkelbach pointed to PhRMA's own initiatives like From Hope to Cures, a marketing campaign that highlights both patient and scientists' stories, and Access Better Coverage, which addresses consumer health coverage and access to medicine, as two examples.

When asked about individual member pharma companies taking proactive stances, Zirkelbach said, "I don't know if I've ever seen the CEOs of our industry more engaged in this discussion particularly now (talking about) how our pharma member companies differ from folks like Turing and Valeant."

Analysts and industry watchers welcome the more aggressive stance, with an almost universal "it's about time" reaction. The Hill story notes Piper Jaffray analyst Joshua Schimmer saying it is reassuring to "at least see a more balanced dialogue starting to play out."

Former Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius said in a story in Stat, "They have some catch-up to do in terms of public trust. I have actually been sort of amazed. I don't think the PhRMA folks do a very good job telling their own story."

But that's exactly the plan now.

"We're not going to open up our playbook, but we are going to do what it takes to make sure that our side of the story gets told," Zirkelbach said. "We've been out there and engaged and we're going to increasingly be so."

He added, "The price of medicine has been in the news going back to the 1800s, literally. … This is always a challenge in terms of making people understand how the marketplace works, why medicines cost what they do. We understand why people ask these questions. The questions aren't new."

- read The Hill coverage
- see the Stat story