Facing fresh pricing threats in D.C., pharma spent a record $92M peddling influence during the first quarter

With Democrats taking control of the White House and Senate and much government money still to be allocated to remedy the coronavirus pandemic, the pharmaceutical industry has ramped up its efforts to wield influence in Washington, D.C.

By spending $92 million on lobbying in the first three months of this year, pharmaceutical companies have set a quarterly record, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The three largest spenders? Pfizer at $3.70 million, Roche at $3.62 million and Merck at $3.59 million.

The $92 million figure represents a 6.3% increase over the industry's lobbying spend in the first quarter of last year. Topping that mark was a significant feat considering how companies swarmed to D.C. in the first quarter of 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic was gaining steam.

But none of this is particularly surprising considering the pharma industry broke its yearly record for influence spending in 2020, with $308 million, and now appears on its way to doing the same in 2021. The $92 million was more than twice that spent by any other industry in the first quarter. 

The nation’s largest trade association, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, spent $8.66 million in the first quarter as it continued to weigh in amid the nationwide push for drug pricing reform.

Last week, during his first State of the Union address, President Joe Biden called on Congress to give Medicare the power to negotiate “lower drug prescription prices.” But his concurrent $1.8 trillion American Families Plan package contained no proposals on the issue, signaling a win for drugmakers.

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Last month, Biden signed the Ensuring Innovation Act, a measure designed to reduce prices by supporting generic and biosimilar alternatives to branded drugs.

A much more impactful bill, H.R. 3, introduced by House Democrats, would allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices and cap out-of-pocket spending for medications at $2,000. The bill is not expected to get through the Senate but some Democrats hope to attach it to the American Families Plan.

Pharma's lobbying efforts are targeting that bill. The industry is also working to derail a World Trade Organization initiative to waive intellectual property rights on COVID-19 vaccines.

Meanwhile, another way pharma companies wield influence is through campaign donations. In 2019-20, for example, Pfizer donated $3.56 million, with $2.08 million going to Democrats and $1.38 million to Republican candidates.

On Wednesday, Stat reported that Sen. Bob Menendez has received at least $1,000 from CEOs of eight different drug companies, including $5,800 from Merck's Ken Frazier and $5,000 from Pfizer's Albert Bourla. 

The New Jersey Democrat, who is expected to play a major role in drug pricing reform policy, also has received donations from political action committees, including $4,000 each from PACs representing Sanofi, Gilead and Boehringer Ingelheim. All told, the donations clock in at $51,000. Menendez isn't up for re-election until 2024.

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Other American pharmaceutical companies that spent more than $2 million in lobbying in the first quarter were AbbVie at $3.09 million, Amgen at $2.81 million, Gilead at $2.53 million, Johnson & Johnson at $2.48 million, Novartis at $2.23 million and Horizon at $2.02 million. 

The Biotechnology Innovation Organization spent $3.06 million, while another lobbying group, the Pharmaceutical Care Management Association, rang up $2.36 million. The latter organization represents pharmacy benefit managers, which have sparred with drugmakers on drug pricing for years.