The nation’s biggest drug lobby remains silent on GOP health care bill

Stephen Ubl of PhRMA took no formal position on the Republican health care bill making its way through Congress — in contrast to other major players in the health industry, like the American Medical Association, the American Hospital Association and the AARP.

PBS NewsHour Anchor Judy Woodruff interviewed Ubl on Friday at the 2017 Aspen Ideas Festival in Aspen, Colorado.

One of the nation’s most powerful lobbying organizations, PhRMA advocates for major pharmaceutical research companies on Capitol Hill. Ubl’s predecessor, John Castellani, retired in 2015 after leading the company for five years.

PhRMA has taken no formal position on the Senate’s version of the American Health Care Act that was released this week and awaits analysis from the Congressional Budget Office. Ubl said the organization remains “very engaged” in developing the legislation. But he did say the Senate bill from Republicans gives “more autonomy for states to shape their insurance market” and added he wants to “make sure that patients have treatment and access to major cures our industry is developing.”

The organization’s members include Purdue Pharma and Allergan. Two decades ago, Purdue launched oxycontin, the prescription opioid that proved highly addictive. In May 2017, the state of Ohio sued these companies, alleging that they continued to sell these drugs even after evidence emerged that opioids were powerfully addictive and linked to a rising number of overdose deaths. This week, Missouri launched a similar lawsuit that included Purdue Pharma.

Speaking on behalf of himself and the industry, Ubl said “no one trivializes the crisis that we’re facing in this country around opioids.”

“It’s a multifactorial problem and all stakeholders really need to be engaged in the solution,” Ubl said. We have a role to play, and we’ll be engaged with other stakeholders towards that end.”

Amid debate about the nation’s rising drug prices, Ubl acknowledged that prescription drug prices spiked in recent years due to “anomalous factors,” such as Medicaid expansion, FDA approval of a record number of drugs and the introduction of a new Hepatitis C cure. Pointing to estimates that drug spending will go up between 4 and 6 percent over the next two decades, Ubl suggested that the worst in escalating drug prices may be behind us: “The python sort of digested the tennis ball.”

PhRMA still stands by the position that the law should not be changed to allow the government to negotiate Medicare drug prices.

“It’s much better to move in the direction of negotiations in the private sector between our members and plans,” Ubl said.

As an example, he pointed to the United Kingdom’s health care system, saying ultimately, “What you find is that patients have less access to novel therapies, and we think that would be a movement in the wrong direction.”

PhRMA has pushed back against efforts to control rising drug prices. In 2015, then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton proposed limits to escalating prescription drug costs. In response, the lobbying group warned that if her plan was implemented, people would lose their jobs, and innovation in prescription therapies for Alzheimer’s, and cancer would spiral downward.