Nonprofit linked to PhRMA behind ads opposing drug pricing changes

Some coalition partners haves distanced themselves from the ads

A woman fills a prescription at the Borinquen Health Care Center in Florida. (Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
A woman fills a prescription at the Borinquen Health Care Center in Florida. (Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Posted September 30, 2021 at 8:27am

The nonprofit organization behind a wide-reaching ad campaign against allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices has deep ties to pharmaceutical lobbyists.

A cable ad campaign has made a patient group called the Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease ubiquitous on television screens in Washington, D.C., and 13 states including Arizona, Colorado and Georgia.

“Thirteen years ago, I noticed a lump on my stomach, and sure enough, they found a cancerous tumor on my liver. I’ve got to take about 22 pills a day,” a man named Bo says in one of the group’s ads. “Take it from someone who knows: Medicare price negotiation isn’t the answer.”

Undisclosed in the heart-wrenching commercials: The Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease has extensive ties to the lobby for major pharmaceutical companies, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA.

For nine years, it shared an address with PhRMA, which advocates for pharmaceutical companies including Pfizer, Amgen and GlaxoSmithKline. Lobbyists for the partnership also lobby for drug companies, and they list PhRMA as a related organization on their required disclosure forms.

The partnership is now located at the office of a consulting firm paid by the nonprofit, a three-minute walk from its former location at PhRMA. Two of the firm’s leaders were once vice presidents at PhRMA focusing on public relations, according to the consulting firm's LinkedIn page.

“These are the telltale signs of an astroturf operation,” said Meredith McGehee, executive director of Issue One, a Washington watchdog group, using a term to describe something that appears to the public like an independent group but is actually supported by a wealthy special interest.

The nonprofit does not disclose its funders.

The partnership’s ad buy is worth at least $5.3 million, according to research by Patients for Affordable Drugs Now, a nonprofit that opposes them and ran its own nearly $4 million ad campaign supporting Democrats' drug pricing proposal.

The partnership’s ads against drug price negotiations are raising concerns among some of the groups listed as its partners.

The partnership did not respond to emailed questions about its ties to the drug industry but said in an emailed statement it supports lowering prescription costs.

“For nearly 15 years, we have advocated for a range of public policy solutions that address health disparities, promote prevention, improve benefit design, and lower prescription costs for patients,” said Jennifer Burke, a spokesperson for the group, in the statement. “We are strongly opposed to government price setting, specifically policies that use discriminatory [quality adjusted life years] and impose restrictive formularies to limit access to much needed care for millions of Americans living with one or more chronic conditions.”

PhRMA did not answer questions about funding it provides the partnership or its spending but said in a statement it is one of “many partners” that support it. PhRMA itself has spent at least $2.7 million on ads in the past couple of months against Medicare drug price negotiations, according to Patients for Affordable Drugs Now.

“Few organizations have done more to advance the issue of chronic disease and the pain endured by patients than the Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease. Since its founding more than a decade ago, we have been one of many partners that have supported this vital organization,” said a PhRMA spokesperson in a statement. “The varying viewpoints each member brings to the table is one reason why the Partnership has been so successful in serving these vulnerable patients.”

“It’s unfortunate the organization is under attack by those who are pushing extreme policies that will limit access to life-saving medicines and destroy the discovery of future treatments — many of which could help address the chronic disease crisis our country is facing,” PhRMA said, in an apparent reference to Patients for Affordable Drugs Now.

PhRMA “helped launch” the partnership in 2007 with executive director Kenneth Thorpe, a former health care official under the Clinton administration, to help drug companies better court Democrats, according to a press report at the time.

Coalition members' concerns

The Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease identifies itself as “an international coalition of over 80 groups focused on highlighting the key role that chronic disease plays in the growth in healthcare spending.”

But many of the groups the Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease lists as partners distanced themselves from the ads, saying they were not consulted or haven’t been in touch with the group for years.

“We certainly would not run that ad ourselves. We would not want our name on that ad,” said John Clymer, executive director of the National Forum for Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention, who served on the partnership’s advisory board from about 2008 to 2010.

Clymer said he supports the partnership’s work on preventing chronic disease, but that his organization would have gotten input from members before launching an ad campaign.

“We do not agree with the Partnership’s approach to communicating with or on behalf of kidney patients,” the National Kidney Foundation said in an emailed statement.

The Cleveland Clinic, an academic medical center, said it was involved with the organization years ago but was not aware of any current activity with the group. The Association of Maternal & Child Health Programs, a public health group, said it first partnered with the organization over a decade ago and does not support the ads. The SEIU, another group listed on the partnership’s website, said the union “strongly opposes” the ads.

After CQ Roll Call contacted more than 100 groups listed as partners, the Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease updated its website to read that the list “includes organizations we have partnered with on various projects and programs over the last 14 years but does not imply support for all of our public policy initiatives.”

The partnership lists the “Lance Armstrong Foundation” as among its partnering organizations, but that nonprofit changed its name to the Livestrong Foundation in 2012 after the retired cyclist’s doping scandal.

Thomas Oliver, professor of medicine and public health at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, said the partnership’s focus on preventive care for chronic diseases deflects attention from rising drug costs.

“It’s a great idea but very insincere,” said Oliver, who follows the history of Medicare’s prescription drug benefits. “They’re basically saying, ‘Don’t blame us for having to rescue people who, for a variety of reasons including levels of activity and diet, have gotten very sick and require our really critical medications.’”

“I think they’re trying to shift the spotlight away from a serious problem,” he added.

Ties to drug companies

There are other connections between the group and PhRMA: The group has over the past 10 years listed PhRMA employees as key officials on its tax forms.

For example, PhRMA vice president Scott LaGanga was the group’s principal officer in 2014 and 2015, according to tax filings.

LaGanga led a similar PhRMA-linked nonprofit opposed to pharmaceutical drug importation, the Partnership for Safe Medicines, until he stepped down in 2017.

Despite its multimillion-dollar budget, the Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease has reported no fundraising costs each year since its 2007 founding.

Over the past few years, the partnership has signed onto letters to lawmakers and authored op-eds in favor of various under-the-radar policies that also were priorities of the drug industry. They include advocating to disband the Independent Payment Advisory Board, a cost-cutting measure decried by critics as “death panels,” and opposing a novel Nevada bill to bring down insulin prices.

But the possibility of Medicare being able to limit the prices of some of the drugs it covers might be the biggest challenge the pharmaceutical lobby and its advocates have faced.

“The day that Medicare gets the authority to negotiate drug prices, the entire U.S. prescription drug cost structure is going to be radically overhauled, and the uncertainty of all that is really unsettling for the industry,” said Oliver.