Drug industry tops in lobbying

By: - July 18, 2005 5:04 am

Durham Herald-Sun

By Alison Lapp, The Herald-Sun Washington bureau
July 16, 2005   9:57 pm

WASHINGTON — From blocking foreign drug imports to reducing federal regulations, the drug industry is intent on getting its way in Washington — and nobody spends more to do it, says a nonpartisan research group.

Pharmaceutical and health care products companies and associations spent over $675 million — more than any other single industry — on federal lobbying between 1998 and 2004, said a report released recently by the Center for Public Integrity. The insurance industry was second, with $597 million spent.

GlaxoSmithKline, which has corporate offices in Research Triangle Park, ranks fourth among major pharmaceutical companies in lobbying expenditures, spending $32.4 million, according to the study.

Critics lash out

Roberta Baskin, the center’s executive director, said the lobbying has translated into a series of legislative victories for drug companies, including the landmark reform of Medicare in 2003 and speedier Food and Drug Administration approval for new prescription medication.

"The lack of effective cost containment or price controls for prescription drugs in the Medicare Modernization Act [of 2003] reflects the strength of the pharmaceutical lobby," said Helen Savage of the North Carolina state office of the AARP in Raleigh.

She said the new system, which starting next year offers a dizzying menu of possible health care providers, may wind up hurting Medicare patients. Savage would have preferred that senior citizens have access to advice on the best and most affordable coverage for their individual needs. She said drug companies may benefit from seniors’ confusion.

In defense of lobbying

"That’s an unfair criticism of the industry" to blame lobbying activities for high drug prices, said Patricia Seif, spokeswoman for GlaxoSmithKline. "We’re involved in issues that go well beyond just price. We look at issues that pertain to public health and safety and that pertain to us as a publicly held company operating in this country."

She said she couldn’t give a precise breakdown on where the company’s lobbying money is spent.

But, she said, "We’ve always been concerned about the safety of importing medicine. We’re interested in issues that pertain to protecting the safety of patients."

The company believes in fair pricing of products and other issues that affect its business, Seif said of the need to spend lobbying dollars.

"It’s clear that a strong pharmaceutical industry helps this country. We provide jobs and the research and innovation that produces drugs to help people live longer and better lives," she said.

In a written statement, Ken Johnson, senior vice president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, said the Center for Public Integrity study "is clearly biased and one-sided" against an industry that spent $38.8 billion in 2004 discovering and developing new medicines and seeking new cures.

"Without question, the innovation of our companies has been helped over the years by wise and responsible government policies that have contributed to a healthy, competitive industry. Today’s regulations and laws encourage companies to take risks as they pursue cutting-edge research," Johnson said.

The political factor

According to the study, the pharmaceutical companies also try to influence policy with campaign contributions. During the 2004 election cycle, GlaxoSmithKline was one of the industry’s top contributors, donating more than $1 million.

When campaign contributions and lobbying expenses are combined, the insurance industry was the No. 1 spender, with more than $850 million, followed by pharmaceuticals at $818 million.

Other top spenders were the oil and gas industry, spending $520 million on lobbying and contributions, and tobacco, spending about $250 million on both.

Since 1998, drug companies have given $143 million to political campaigns from the state to the federal level, with almost 65 percent of that going to Republicans, the report said.

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., has been one of the top five recipients of drug company money over the seven years studied, receiving $334,402 from pharmaceutical companies and their employees.

Burr voted to revamp Medicare and against a bill in 2003 that would have permitted importing cheaper drugs from abroad.

"The Medicare bill expanded coverage for North Carolina beneficiaries," said Christopher Joyner, Burr’s policy director. "It was their well-being he had in mind when he cast his vote."

Joyner said that besides the controversial prescription drug benefit, the bill included a rural health care package and new preventative medicine benefits.

Revolving door

Part of the pharmaceutical industry’s lobbying success relies on the "revolving door" of federal officials who become lobbyists and vice versa, Baskin said. One-third of the 3,000 lobbyists employed by the industry since 1998 have been former federal employees, she said.

Among them was Republican Lauch Faircloth, who lost his Senate seat in 1998 to John Edwards and took a job with Abbott Laboratories in 2002.

Savage said the rising cost of medication is affecting low- and middle-income seniors in North Carolina, and elected officials need to address their concerns.

"Are people in North Carolina still very worried about the cost of prescription drugs?" she asked. "Absolutely."

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Chris Fitzsimon

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina. [email protected] 919-861-2066