Can pharma fix its bad rep without directly addressing price hikes? It's going to spend millions trying

The biopharma industry has a plan to save its reputation from the cries of “price-gouging” and “getting away with murder” that have been circulating among politicians and the public over the last couple of years. But that plan doesn't include frank talk about drug prices.

The new campaign, dubbed Go Boldly and launched Monday by lobby group PhRMA, is a two-pronged effort to “do a better job” telling the industry's story—and the researchers and scientists who are key characters, PhRMA president and CEO Stephen Ubl told reporters in a briefing Monday.

One component centers on national TV, print, digital, radio and out-of-home advertising that will highlight advances in medicine that “five years ago would have been considered science fiction,” Ubl said, including precision medicine, immunotherapy and genomics. The other, EVP Robert Zirkelbach explained, will consist of public affairs activities meant to “engage people all across the country in a conversation around value and innovation and how we can make the healthcare system work better for patients.”

“We’re serious about moving to a value-driven healthcare system,” he said, noting that “we believe the private sector can and should lead the move in that direction” but that there are “policy and regulatory barriers that make it hard” to strike new types of arrangements with payers.

The campaign, an effort of at least four to five years that Ubl called the “most comprehensive campaign we have ever embarked upon,” will cost “high tens of millions of dollars every year,” according to Zirkelbach. But its advertising won’t directly address the millions of dollars in list-price increases that have sparked public outcry.

“We have a discussion today that’s been dominated by three bad actors,”—those would be Martin Shkreli’s Turing, Valeant and EpiPen-maker Mylan—that have benefitted from “regulatory arbitrage,” raising the prices of older meds that don’t have competition, Ubl said. And the way PhRMA sees it, it needs to “open the aperture and have a broader discussion” about “pragmatic policy solutions” that would, for example, bring generics to market faster.

Of course, while the three drugmakers Ubl mentioned may have taken the most heat over their price-hiking tactics, many of their peers have also found themselves in the spotlight lately. And some CEOs, including Mylan chief Heather Bresch, have suggested that until the public has more transparency on how drugs are priced and which players in the system reap the benefits, pharma won’t be able to fully repair its relationship with consumers.

That’s one reason some companies have taken it upon themselves to craft their own messaging around the issue—such as Allergan CEO Brent Saunders, who in September launched a “social contract” with patients capping the size and frequency of the company’s price increases.

“Limit your price increases before we all face the impact of government regulation that stifles innovation and patient care,” he warned his fellow industry execs late last year.