The new initiative from Restore the Public Trust, which has trained its fire on several members of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet, aims to undercut the administration’s claims to be committed to lowering prescription drug prices.
It also highlights a divide between progressive activists and Democratic congressional leadership, which has been quietly negotiating a prescription drug price bill with the White House.
“Ties between the drug industry and the administration pose a clear conflict of interest,” Restore Public Trust spokeswoman Lizzy Price said in a statement. “The American people deserve to know whose bottom line government employees are looking out for ― American families’ or their buddies in the pharmaceutical industry?”
Restore Public Trust is using a new website, BigPharmasBestFriends.org, to showcase research that answers its own question.
The site features 16 Trump administration officials working on prescription drug policy who have a history of working in the pharmaceutical industry. It says alumni of 19 pharmaceutical companies or lobbying outfits hold Trump administration posts.
Chief among them are Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, who was previously CEO of the drugmaker Eli Lilly, and Food and Drug Administration acting Commissioner Ned Sharpless. The site notes that Azar presided over a 345% increase in the price of Eli Lilly’s version of insulin.
“It’s no surprise that drug prices continue to skyrocket on the Trump administration’s watch,” Price said. “Trump and Secretary Azar have talked a big game about lowering drug prices, but they simply haven’t delivered. Trump’s pharma hires into key positions are one reason why.”
Restore Public Trust’s digital video advertisements focus on the billions of dollars that pharmaceutical companies have saved thanks to Trump’s tax cut.
“Meanwhile, pharmaceutical companies haven’t done enough to lower prescription drug prices and help consumers,” the narrator says in a one-minute spot.
The advertisements principally target the Washington area, where Restore Public Trust hopes to reach lawmakers, Capitol Hill staff and other influential figures.
Restore Public Trust had singled out Azar for scrutiny on several occasions in the past. It targeted the health secretary with a five-figure televisions ad campaign in February, and took out a full-page ad in Politico in April publicizing Azar’s role overseeing the big jump in the cost of insulin.
Liberal groups see the Trump administration’s ties to the pharmaceutical industry as a vulnerability, because it adds fuel to their argument that Trump has failed to live up to his campaign-trail image as a working-class populist.
As a candidate, Trump broke with the GOP’s pro-business dogma by promising to dramatically lower prescription drug prices by using government leverage to negotiate bulk discounts. His health care plan even allowed for the importation of cheaper drugs from foreign countries, something many Democrats have shied away from.
Since taking office, however, Trump’s reforms have been limited to marginal changes, like new rules requiring pharmaceutical companies to list prices in their television advertisements. And Trump’s proposed overhaul of the North American Free Trade Agreement, would actually pad Big Pharma coffers by shielding drugs that come from living organisms from generic competition.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has nonetheless sought to broker a deal with the administration that would seek to lower prescription drug prices.
The core elements of a bill her staff worked on with the Trump White House elicited scathing criticism from patient advocacy groups when Pelosi revealed it to Democratic members of Congress in late May.
The legislation would empower the Department of Health and Human Services to negotiate lower prices on at least 25 prescription drugs covered by both private and public health insurance plans. If the government reached an impasse with drugmakers, the Government Accountability Office would have the power to decide on a price.
Critics of the deal charge that by limiting the scope of government oversight to a small number of drugs, and failing to arm the government with greater leverage over pharmaceutical companies in the event of an impasse, the bill would fail to meaningfully lower drug prices while handing Trump a political win.
“We think this arbitration proposal adds more rigging to a rigged system,” John Hassell, national director of advocacy for the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, told HuffPost.