Among critics of the pharmaceutical industry in Washington, D.C., speculation has run rife that the sector and its powerful trade association, PhRMA, would use the COVID-19 crisis and Big Pharma’s ability to present itself as a “solutions provider” to argue for more policy changes benefiting the industry as time goes on.
Now, a review of lobbying filings associated with the group suggests exactly that has happened.
As Big Pharma looks to position itself as a savior by working on an array of potential COVID-19 treatments and vaccines, it is increasing its D.C. footprint in what looks like an effort to leverage the crisis to achieve long-held policy goals.
April lobbying registrations indicate that PhRMA terminated no existing lobbyists, but has added the powerful lobbying firm American Continental Group to its lobbying roster.
As of January, Politico ranked American Continental Group within the top twenty lobbying firms in the Capitol. In 2019, it brought in a staggering $13.6 million in fees.
According to Open Secrets, despite the contract only having been signed in April, American Continental has already billed PhRMA $30,000 for its work.
Some of the group’s policy goals are laudable: Speedier approval of drugs that may help treat or prevent COVID-19, streamlined FDA approvals, and similar proposals are commonsense, free market concepts that in the current environment should be lauded.
But there is a concern that Big Pharma may also use its increasing lobbying heft to shut down policy aimed at allowing changes to how Medicare negotiates drug prices, permitting prescription drug re-importation, and curtailing reductions in drug prices especially through the 340B drug discount program that PhRMA prioritizes curtailing or killing and which keeps prices down and providers open in lots of rural, white working class communities.
These are three issues at which PhRMA, and the pharmaceutical industry more broadly, has been at odds with the Trump administration, congressional Democrats and populist Republicans, and where it is eager to bank a win.
Will PhRMA providing solutions to COVID-19, combined with spending major coin in the Beltway, secure its desired policies? Backers of the President and key policies he has supported should hope not, but if a solid treatment or a vaccine emerges, the industry will find itself operating with the advantage of massive goodwill after years of rampant criticism. That could change drug pricing debates immensely, and it looks like Big Pharma is positioning itself to exploit the situation if and when it occurs.