Bring it on, pharma: Finger-pointing at insurers provokes AHIP tweetstorm

The pharma and insurance lobbies are fighting about who's responsible for high healthcare costs, and the argument broke out on social media Thursday.

Call it unintended-but-predictable consequences: Launched this summer, a pharma industry campaign called "Let's Talk About Cost” highlights the role of insurers and middlemen in drug spending. Now, top insurers are talking back, with no punches pulled.

America's Health Insurance Plans, the insurance industry's lobby group, called out pharma on Twitter in a series of posts about drug expenses, misuse of drug laws, price hikes, patent deals and more. It isn't the first time the industries have sparred and won't be the last. 

Of course, pharma has its own set of arguments to take on the insurance lobby. Drug industry group PhRMA launched its public campaign back in July to highlight the role of middlemen and payers in drug pricing and access. The drug industry says insurers are making patients pay a higher share of drug costs and that powerful middlemen called PBMs are forcing them to offer bigger rebates. 

Earlier this year, a pharma-funded study found that rebates and discounts have grown in recent years to $105 billion in 2015, up from $67 billion in 2013. The study found that middlemen keep 31% of total drug sales in the U.S.

Hitting back, the insurance lobby cited a study in a Wednesday post that concluded pharma's R&D costs don't justify high drug prices in the U.S., a common argument by the drug industry. As AHIP unloaded its case on social media, one patient hit back and another Twitter user called for a constructive conversation.

In their own effort to explain drug cost dynamics, multiple drugmakers have released "transparency reports" showing the bite payer rebating is taking out of their sales. Net spending growth on medicine, as pharma points out, was just 3% to 5% last year. 

In its corner, AHIP says many top drugmakers spend more on marketing than R&D. 

As the sides go back and forth, they're hoping to win favor as the public debate over drug costs unfolds. Despite years of attention to price, Congress hasn't been able to advance on the issue and has largely quieted on the topic lately. 

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