Pharma lobbyists flood the zone in D.C., with Pfizer and Amgen leading the way

Big Pharma has taken a tongue-lashing on Capitol Hill as scrutiny over drug pricing and competition ramps up. But while executives were raked over the coals on live TV, a surge of pharma lobbyists worked overtime behind the scenes.

In the first three months of 2019, pharma’s top 10 biggest spenders on congressional lobbying shelled out nearly $31 million, according to reports filed with the U.S. Senate. The totals include money spent by the company itself and by hired guns lobbying on its behalf.

The single largest corporate spender, Pfizer, dropped a whopping $5.13 million in the first quarter, well on its way to matching or surpassing its 2018 total spending of $11.41 million.

Among the other drugmakers topping the list in the first quarter are Amgen—which shelled out $4.36 million total—Roche, Merck & Co. and AbbVie. The latter three each spent more than $3 million. Rounding out the top 10 were Bayer and its $2.9 million in lobbying spend; Gilead, with $2.37 million; and Sanofi, J&J and Eli Lilly, each of which totted up almost $2 million.

But pharma companies are not the only players on the field. The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association (PhRMA) continues to blanket Washington with lobbyists, spending an eye-popping $11.39 million on direct lobbying and third-party representation in the first quarter.

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

That blank check on Capitol Hill follows PhRMA’s record year in 2018, when it racked up a $27.5 million bill lobbying Congress. Other trade associations—like the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO) and the Pharmaceutical Care Management Association (PCMA), which represents pharmacy benefits managers—also spent some serious money last quarter, with $3.48 million and $1.49 million, respectively.

Overall, pharma lobbying sported a record spending year in 2018, what with pricing a continued hot-button issue and Medicare changes threatening drug sales. The first-quarter spending totals could put drugmakers on track for another record this year. And no wonder: Now that Democrats have taken the majority in the House and the 2020 presidential campaign is heating up, lawmakers are considering a slew of bills that could cap drug-price increases and stimulate branded drug competition from generics and biosimilars.

All of that pressure, in addition to calls for "Medicare for All" from progressive presidential candidates, has sent stocks on a roller coaster ride in recent weeks and presents long-term concerns for the industry, analysts say. 

Last Tuesday, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders' call for universal, single-payer health care during a FoxNews Town Hall event coincided with a two-day drop of more than 200 basis points on the NASDAQ Biotech Index. Wells Fargo analyst David Maris said the high-profile threat to pharma's bottom line will continue to send shockwaves through the industry. 

"We believe the underperformance seen in pharmaceuticals stocks is likely to continue as the political and social debate on drug prices continues, and perhaps the environment will improve when the debate eventually turns to the costs of Medicare-for-All or when we get past the period of uncertainty of reform," Maris told investors in a note last week.  

Daniel Auble, a senior researcher with the Center for Responsive Politics, said pharma's sense of being "under threat of regulation" has led to a widespread push for more lobbying.

"It remains to be seen whether the upward trend will continue in 2019 but the continued scrutiny of healthcare in general and pharmaceuticals in particular indicates it likely will,"  Auble told FiercePharma in an email. 

That "period of uncertainty" shows little sign of ending for now. And amid the flurry of proposed legislation, committee investigations in Washington continue. 

RELATED: Who's partisan? Republicans urge drug company CEOs to ignore pricing probe started by Democrat

In January, Rep. Elijah Cummings, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, launched an investigation into pharma’s drug-pricing strategies, including requesting justification for the industry’s periodic increases in prices.

However, that investigation has met pushback from GOP committee members, who have counseled drug companies to stonewall Cummings’ effort out of fear, in part, that the investigation’s results would be leaked to the press.

RELATED: Outgoing FDA chief Gottlieb taking drug price fight to think tank

Drugmakers fighting tooth and nail to stave off competitors might have scored a win after former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, an ardent supporter of easing approval of biosims and ramping up competition for single-source brands, left the administration this month.

Gottlieb announced he planned to accept a fellowship at Washington’s American Enterprise Institute to help shape policy to lower the cost of prescription drugs.