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PhRMA Takes Pro-Active Strategy to Capitol Hill

Stephen Ubl official

Stephen Ubl

Washington, DC, March 28, 2016 ― Sarah Ferris reports in The Hill that the new head of Washington, DC’s biggest drug lobby has a strategy to help overcome a tortuous year of bad publicity on pricing: More lab coats on Capitol Hill.

Steve Ubl, president and CEO of the Pharmaceutical Researcher and Manufacturers Association (PhRMA), plans to deploy top scientists and researchers to meet with lawmakers in a potentially make-or-break year for the industry.

Capitol Hill offices also will get facetime with the patients who have benefited from some of the newest, and costliest, drugs, Ferris reports.

It’s a marked shift for a drug lobby that Ubl acknowledged has “focused on defense” since it became a political target during the early days of the Affordable Care Act, and even more recently, during the fierce debate over drug pricing.

“I think it’s fair to say this represents a bit of a pivot for the organization.  We’re going to develop a proactive policy agenda, and we’re going to drive it,” Ubl said in an interview in his downtown D.C. office this month.

“The industry has had a bit of a bunker mentality,” added Ubl, PhRMA’s first new CEO in six years.

Since September, Ubl has been working to spotclean a public image that has been badly tarnished this year by individuals like Martin Shkreli, seen by some as public symbols of greed.

Shkreli’s former company, Turing Pharmaceuticals, drew national scorn last year for hiking up the costs of a decades-old drug used by AIDS patients by 5,000 percent.  The pricing scheme from the so-called “pharma bro,” plus similar tactics by Valeant Pharmaceuticals, grabbed headlines nationwide and became the subject of rare bipartisan probes on Capitol Hill.

About a year before that, the drug lobby was under fire for a Hepatitis C cure that was draining state budgets at an initial cost of $1,000-per-pill.  (Today, Ubl says he stands by that price: “Even the launch price, which nobody’s paying anymore, is a bargain.”)

As tensions flared about drug prices last fall, PhRMA focused on making clear that neither Turing nor Valeant Pharmaceuticals were part of their organization.  Neither is Gilead, the company that created the costly Hepatitis C drug.

Over the last year, PhRMA tried to push back against the outrage over drug pricing with press briefings and extensive explanations of the complex world of drug pricing.

Starting now, the organization also hopes to push out the federal policy changes that it believed can actually limit price increases.

This month, PhRMA released a 10-page “policy platform,” a wonky wish list of long-sought changes to policies under the Food and Drug Administration.

Some of PhRMA’s proposals have gained momentum on Capitol Hill.  Leaders of the House and Energy Commerce Committee recently led an FDA overhaul package called “21st Century Cures” that was passed nearly unanimously on the House floor.

As drug pricing heats up on both sides of the 2016 campaign, PhRMA has been hitting the airwaves to offer a brighter side of the business.  In February, the company announced a multi-million ad campaign called “From Hopes to Cures” in D.C., aimed at lawmakers.

The organization also recently tapped Biogen CEO Dr. George Scangos, who brings decades of experience in research and development, to become the chairman of its board.

“It’s just the perfect moment to have a researcher as chairman of the organization,” Ubl said.

The former CEO, John Castellani, who passed the mantle last fall after six years leading PhRMA, didn’t shy away from the drug pricing debate. He would often dispute PhRMA’s perceived role in the growing costs of medicine. But in many statements and letters to the editor, he spent more time blaming the “outdated insurance model” than pitching new policies.

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) represents the country’s leading innovative biopharmaceutical research companies, which are devoted to discovering and developing medicines that enable patients to live longer, healthier, and more productive lives.

Since 2000, PhRMA member companies have invested more than $600 billion in the search for new treatments and cures, including an estimated $51.2 billion in 2014 alone.

To read Ferris’ full story, click here.