FiercePharmaPolitics—PhRMA, BIO jack up lobbying spend as political squeeze intensifies

US Capitol at night
Amid the drug pricing debate, pharma groups upped their lobby spend again in 2019. (Wikimedia Commons)

Welcome to the FiercePharma political roundup, where each week we’ll highlight developments in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere that could affect how drugmakers operate.   

As the drug pricing debate rolls on—so far without meaningful changes—the pharma lobby is staying busy. Very busy, in fact, shelling out more money than ever to battle over their favorite, or not-so-favorite, issues.

Meanwhile, ahead of the election, President Donald Trump is still seeking a pricing win, though time is running out—and HHS Secretary Alex Azar is feeling the squeeze.

In 2019, pharma’s top U.S. trade group PhRMA spent a record $28.9 million lobbying, according to a disclosure form released last week. The Biotechnology Industry Organization, more popularly known as BIO, spent $12.2 million, up from $9.9 million in 2018, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. BIO represents small, pre-commercial biotech companies as well as large pharmas.

PhRMA’s lobbying activity last year bested the group's prior record of $27.5 million, set in 2018. Before that, the organization hit its previous lobbying record in 2009 amid debates over the Affordable Care Act. 

RELATED: As drug prices took daily fire last year, PhRMA racked up a record lobbying bill 

Last year, PhRMA lobbyists worked with (or against) lawmakers on various bills centered on international reference pricing, patent rights, FDA citizen petitions and more.  

Meanwhile, during a chaotic year with impeachment proceedings and election campaigning, the Trump administration is still gunning for a drug pricing win in 2020, Politico reports

After polling showed voters prefer Democrats to Republicans on healthcare, President Donald Trump grilled Azar, according to the publication. Now, the administration is weighing whether it can release and implement its international pricing index this year in what would be a major change opposed by the pharma industry. 

A PhRMA spokeswoman told Politico the group urges policymakers to “abandon” international reference pricing and “instead pursue reforms grounded in market competition and patient-centered care.” 

That echoes comments made by pharma execs at this month’s J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco. Several industry leaders opposed moves like international reference pricing or lowering their own prices, CNBC points out. Instead, drugmakers want lawmakers to focus on affordability for patients. Eli Lilly CEO David Ricks said the U.S. needs “reform to the insurance system,” as quoted by CNBC. 

RELATED: After January hikes, pricing remains the industry's top concern in 2020: GlobalData 

The industry can’t “walk away from the challenges around pricing,” Merck & Co. CEO Ken Frazier said at his company’s JPM fireside chat. Affordability is often a problem at the start of the year as patients’ deductibles reset, he said, so Merck supports programs that would spread that burden out. Further, he supports passing rebates through to consumers and an out-of-pocket cap for patients.

After countless headlines about insulin affordability and stories about patients rationing their supplies, Novo Nordisk is the latest company to roll out affordability and access programs. The company launched authorized generics at a discount, plus a $99-per-month program for patients with or without insurance. If patients are at risk of rationing their insulin, the company pledged to provide an “immediate supply” which would cover about a month’s worth of insulin needs.