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California’s Prop. 61 Offers Opportunity to Take on Big Pharma

The drug corporations are running scared... and spending big to defeat this ballot measure

Nurses and other activists attended a rally featuring Sen. Bernie Sanders in support of Proposition 61 to lower prescription drug prices in California last month. (Photo: CNA/NNU/flickr/cc)

While the world is watching the Presidential race Tuesday night, another election battle in California provides a window in the ability of voters to challenge corporate power – in this case one of the most abusive industries in the world, big pharma.

Proposition 61 in California pits the drug cartel and those shilling for it, against patients, nurses, and consumer advocates. At a time when the drug giants have buried proposals in Congress and state legislatures to block any restraints on its predatory pricing, Prop. 61 would actually begin the process of lowering prices.

The drug corporations are running scared. They’ve poured in over $120 million, the most ever spent on a California ballot measure (and likely the most ever in the U.S.) with a non-stop pounding of deceptive and misleading ads intended to bully voters the way they routinely intimidate lawmakers.

"At a time when the drug giants have buried proposals in Congress and state legislatures to block any restraints on its predatory pricing, Prop. 61 would actually begin the process of lowering prices."

Some of the tactics are right out of the playbook the industry has used across the country. As veteran national healthcare writer Trudy Lieberman notes, “PhRMA has reaped big dividends from having patient advocacy organizations shill for it in the legislative and regulatory arenas.”

With Prop. 61, the drug companies rarely speak in their own name, hiding their opposition role behind others viewed to have more public credibility. The Intercept cites public filings that reveal “19 different civic organizations, from the Foreign Legion to a bilingual voter guide organization, taking drug industry funds and endorsing No on Prop 61.”

Among them are several LGBT Democratic clubs whose influence has helped neutralize some liberal to progressive potential supporters, and prominent veterans organizations, all of whom have received drug industry funding.
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Additionally, big pharma has lined up most of the corporate news media with Trudy Lieberman caustically noting after reading many editorials and op eds, “I concluded they must have been written from drug industry talking points dropped off at the newspaper offices.”

Yet, in the face of the massive onslaught of ads, every time you turn on your TV, computer, or mobile device, Prop. 61 has held its own with voters, polls have shown, and has a real chance to win.

That’s what has the drug companies alarmed. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has embraced Prop. 61 in videos, billboard ads, and campaign visit, says, “Californians on Nov. 8 have a chance to stand up to the pharmaceutical industry’s greed and spark a national movement to end this price-gouging.”

Nurses have crisscrossed the state in support of Prop. 61, noting that they see patients on a regular basis who put their health at grave risk by self-rationing medication because of the high out of pocket cost.


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They tell stories like this one, from a Fresno RN Amy Arlund of a “young man in his late 40s living on a fixed income, working two jobs, who was diagnosed with high blood pressure. This one medication was going to cost him over $400 a month.

‘I’m young, still in my 40s,’ he thought, ‘I’ll just have to live with it a little longer.’

About three months after this diagnosis, because he could not afford to take his blood pressure medication, he had a massive stroke and is now permanently disabled.”

Or from Long Beach RN Margie Keenan, who described “patients provided a heart stent for serious coronary disease sent home with directions to take anti-platelet drugs for continuing therapy, are returning to the ER with serious chest pain. Or dying before they get there. Why? They can’t afford the high out-of-pocket cost for their medication.”

For those not keeping track, here’s what big pharma has become, an industry with enough wealth and power to make Pablo Escobar blush:

  • 164 – percent of price increase since 2008 for brand name drugs in the U.S.
  • $1.6 trillion – worldwide profits, 50 top drug companies since 1995.
  • $3.4 billion – federal lobbying, 1998 through 2016, more than any other industry, including the banking and fossil fuel industries.
  • 1,400 – pharma federal lobbyists, 2015.
  • $11 billion – compensation for pharma executives, 2011-2015, mostly based on pay for performance (high stock prices driven by inflated prices). Ten executives made an aggregate $327 million in 2015 alone.
  • $1.7 trillion –pharma mergers and acquisitions spending,  1992-2015, during which drug costs, fueled by monopolization, rose by over 300 percent.
  • 89 – percent of top 100 drug firms that spend more on marketing than on research and development (R&D), 27 percent spend 10 times as much. Much R&D is funded by taxpayers, performed at public universities.
  • 65 – percent of industry R&D for minor tweaks to existing drugs that do little to make them more effective, but allow the company to extend the monopoly patent protection for a high priced brand name drug over a generic alternative up to 20 more years.

(Note: Find more background on the pharmaceutical industry from CNA/NNU’s Institute for Health and Socio-Economic Policy here.)

Seen enough? Prop. 61 requires the state to pay no more for medications for people it covers than is paid for the same prescription drugs by the Department of Veterans Affairs, the one agency that has authority to use public power to negotiate bulk price discounts.

Prop. 61 won’t end drug price gouging, but it’s a big start. One industry publication called California “ground zero” in the battle against big pharma and warned drug company executives, that “adoption of VA pricing by the state of California would be a “pricing disaster” for the entire U.S. drug industry.

That would be welcome. Passing Prop. 61 would send an unmistakable message that you can confront the corporate grip over our politics, our economy and our health – and win.

RoseAnn DeMoro

RoseAnn DeMoro is a labor leader and organizer for social change. She is former executive director of National Nurses United and former national vice president of the AFL-CIO. In addition to serving as board member of Consumer Watchdog, she is currently spending all of her time telling everyone she knows, and even more people that she does not know, that Bernie Sanders should run for president in 2020. Follow her on Twitter: @RoseAnnDeMoro

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