Efforts to reduce drug prices stall amid pharmaceutical lobbying

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Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) introduced legislation that would allow for more generic drugs. The bill, which was opposed by major pharmaceutical companies, will now see changes. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

Prescription drug prices are too high — there is a bipartisan consensus on that much in Washington, as recent estimates suggest that the average American spends about $1,200 on prescription drugs each year.

But ambitious legislation designed to curtail these rising costs is stalled as pharmaceutical companies spend tens of millions of dollars lobbying against the measures.

Drug manufacturers spent $52 million on lobbying in the first quarter of 2019 after spending $169 million on lobbying the previous year. A total of 116 companies and associations have lobbied on behalf of the industry so far in 2019, with 692 individual lobbyists.

The Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America, a trade group representing three dozen drug companies, was the third-largest lobbying client across all industries during the first quarter of 2019. The group spent $10 million to deploy 163 registered lobbyists, 70 percent of whom have been through the revolving door.

One target of pharmaceutical lobbying was a bill introduced by Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) in May. The Affordable Prescriptions for Patients Act would have classified certain patent practices as anticompetitive, making it easier for the Federal Trade Commission to bring lawsuits against drug companies that tried to block out generic alternatives.

An example often cited by proponents of stricter patent regulation is the drug Humira. The drug, which is used to treat several autoimmune diseases including rheumatoid arthritis, was approved for medical use in 2002, and its rights are controlled by the Chicago-based company AbbVie. According to testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in May, AbbVie obtained more than 50 new patents on Humira in 2015 and 2016, shortly before it was set to go on the market. The new patents meant that the drug will not face competition from generics in the U.S. until 2023.

“Drug companies have taken advantage of the patent system to maintain their monopoly on certain drugs and prevent generics from coming to market,” Cornyn said in a statement when his office announced the bill. “These tactics mean Americans are forced to pay more for the life-saving medications they need. This bill puts patients first and reforms the system to encourage the availability of cheaper generics.”

Drug manufacturers were particularly concerned about Cornyn and Blumenthal’s bill because of the potential for increased lawsuits, Bloomberg Government reported.

After backlash from the pharmaceutical industry, Cornyn said on Tuesday that the bill would see changes. Bloomberg Government reported that the Texas senator planned to modify the legislation to focus on the powers of the FDA, rather than the potentially stronger enforcement mechanisms of the FTC — a win for drug companies.

A spokeswoman for Cornyn said the changes would be minor.

“One section of the legislation is being modified to give the FDA authority to go after certain abusive behaviors and limit what drug companies can do to wrongfully keep competitors from coming to market,” the spokeswoman said. “There’s more than one way to skin this cat, and this approach will achieve the same goal of lowering prices by giving authority both to the FTC and the FDA. We’re optimistic we can better achieve bipartisan consensus and move the legislation forward in the Senate with this minor change.”

In addition to their vigorous lobbying efforts, drug manufacturers are major campaign donors to politicians on both sides of the aisle. The three biggest pharmaceutical PACs, Pfizer, Amgen and AbbVie, gave more than $2.6 million to federal candidates during the 2018 midterm cycle, including a combined $3,000 to Cornyn. Blumenthal received $7,000 from Pfizer and $1,000 from Amgen during the 2016 cycle, when he was up for reelection.

Pharmaceutical lobbying is likely to continue, as the Affordable Prescriptions for Patients Act was just one bill in a flurry of legislation designed to address high drug costs.

In late May, Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) introduced a more comprehensive bill that targets drug prices as well as other healthcare issues such as surprise billing. Last week, Reps. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-Fla.), Doug Collins (R-Ga.) and Ben Cline (R-Va.) introduced a bill that seeks to allow for more generics by increasing the burden of proof for companies seeking additional patents on an existing medication.

One notable piece of legislation on drug prices passed in 2018, a bipartisan bill that removed gag clauses for pharmacists, allowing them to tell customers when it is cheaper to pay for prescriptions without using insurance.

Edit 6/19/2019 at 3:52 p.m.: This article has been updated to reflect a statement from a Cornyn spokeswoman.

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