Here's how PhRMA is pushing back against drug price outrage

'They have some catch-up to do in terms of public trust'

The powerful lobbying group Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) is struggling to regain its footing as controversies over rising drug prices add up, Dylan Scott reports for Stat News.

"No doubt, this is an intense period of time where there's a lot of scrutiny," says Lori Reilly, PhRMA's EVP for policy and research.

The industry is facing nationwide outcry about high drug prices. The public outrage is more consistent than it has been in the past, according former HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. "They have some catch-up to do in terms of public trust," Sebelius says.

PhRMA leaders are starting to brainstorm coordinated responses to these critics. The group is rethinking both internal and external messaging, distancing itself from companies like Turing Pharmaceuticals, which was recently embroiled in controversy after raising the price of a decades-old drug by more than 5,000%.

Internal challenges

In the past, there was no real interest in rebuking pharmaceutical companies that were in the middle of a media firestorm, says Reilly. But now, PhRMA has a more vested interest in critiquing these companies.

PhRMA tweeted that Turing "does not represent the values of PhRMA member companies" and criticized Valeant Pharmaceuticals International, which was involved in a separate controversy regarding dramatic price hikes for heart medication, as being "more reflective of a hedge fund than an innovative biopharmaceutical company."

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Turing and Valeant aren't members of PhRMA, but the lobbying group's interest in separating their members from other companies is a new trend.

"Historically, that just is not an issue we would have engaged in necessarily, or at least not publicly said anything," Reilly says.

In fact, PhRMA members in the past often acted monolithically, rarely dissenting from the official PhRMA position.

"Everything we did, we were unanimous," says former PhRMA President Billy Tauzin, "and the reason was they understood the old adage: 'Together, we succeed. Separated, we fail.'"

Harnessing social media

a recent poll from Kaiser Family Foundation found that 74% of Americans feel drug companies, such as members of PhRMA, "put profits before people." PhRMA members are forming a coordinated response to deflect such criticisms, according to Biogen CEO George Scangos, a PhRMA member.

Last year, PhRMA launched the "I'm Not Average" campaign, which profiles cancers patients whose lives have been positively affected by medicines that PhRMA members produce.

One video highlights Loretta, a mother of two who was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer in 2003. In the background, Loretta talks about her diagnosis, what she calls "a death sentence," while the camera pans over photos of Loretta with her husband and their two young children.

"It's expensive, it's high risk, it's challenging, but in the end, it's very rewarding," Richard Gaynor, SVP of oncology at PhRMA member Eli Lilly and Company, tells the viewer, "to make a medicine that can change a person's, a family's life."

"Because of them and their dedicated continuing research, I am alive today, 12 years after my diagnosis," Loretta says, staring straight into the camera as the music swells.

PhRMA has more videos like this, and is hoping that such feel-good stories serve as reminders to the public of the good PhRMA members do.

"We actually have a great story to tell, a great narrative," Reilly says (Scott, Stat News, 11/6; Zirkelbach, "The Catalyst," PhRMA, 10/22).

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