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Mylan infamously raised EpiPen prices by over 500 percent. California's Proposition 61 is intended to limit egregious price gouging. (Photo: kiwinky/flickr/cc)

Big Pharma Spending Big to Defeat Drug Price Measure

Sanders lends support as battle over California's price gouging ballot measure heats up

Nika Knight Beauchamp

The battle over a California ballot measure to put a stop to pharmaceutical price gouging is heating up as the election draws near, with Big Pharma pitting itself against consumer watchdogs, parents of sick children, and nurses.

Big Pharma has spent nearly $90 million to defeat Proposition 61, which "would require all prescription drugs purchased by the state of California to be priced at or below the price paid by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), which pays the lowest price of any federal agency," as the Los Angeles Daily News writes.

The battle takes place just as Mylan, the producer of the life-saving epinephrine injectors known as EpiPens, was fined hundreds of millions of dollars by the Justice Department for overcharging Medicaid for the devices. Mylan infamously raised EpiPen prices by over 500 percent.

Yet despite weeks of negative media coverage of Mylan's price gouging, the pharmaceutical industry is undaunted in its fights to defeat Proposition 61. Companies know that the "stakes are high" when it comes to their profits, the Associated Press reports, and aware of how "trendsetting California votes could spill over to other states."

Much of the industry's money is going toward an ad campaign that claims lowering the state's pharmaceutical costs to the prices paid by the VA will increase the price of drugs for veterans—which proponents of Proposition 61 say simply isn't true.

Indeed, argued Carmen Balber of California-based non-profit Consumer Watchdog , "When drug companies are jacking up prices by 1000 percent or more, it's pretty obvious they aren't spending $90 million against Prop. 61 because they're worried drug prices will go even higher. Threats of higher drug prices are just that, threats to keep California hostage [to] their drug price gouging."

And consumer advocates, parents, and nurses are fighting back.

Consumer Watchdog published a scathing report (pdf) Monday that detailed the billions in profits made by the top eight corporate contributors to the effort to defeat Proposition 61.

"[E]ight of the top ten pharmaceutical industry donors fighting Proposition 61 have increased their profits by a combined $37 billion, or 20 percent, over the last decade," the group writes, "reaching a total of $214 billion in gross profits in 2015. All the while, these companies have increased the prices of prescription drugs by as much as 1000 percent."

Parents in California have also been vocal in the battle for Prop. 61: "Because of my sons' allergies I have to buy several EpiPens a year, but even with insurance they can cost a fortune," said Kathleen Hallal of Irvine, according to Consumer Watchdog head Jamie Court in the Huffington Post. "Children can die without this medication and it shouldn't be out of reach. I'm supporting Prop. 61 because it's time someone told the drug companies that their price-gouging is costing lives."

And Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is also lending his voice to the campaign, appearing in pro-Prop. 61 advertisements that launched last week.

"The time is long overdue for the American people too stand up to the greed of the pharmaceutical industry," Sanders says in the ad. "Proposition 61 is a very, very important step forward [...] and will be a real blow against this greedy industry that will reverberate all over America."

Thus far, despite Big Pharma's efforts it appears that California's parents, consumer advocates, and nurses are coming out ahead: the most recent poll found that 66 percent of state voters are in favor of Proposition 61.

As National Nurses United president Deborah Burger argued: "Let's stop rewarding the arrogance of this out of control industry, and take real steps to cut drug prices, beginning in California by voting Yes on Prop. 61."

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