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Voters don’t like ‘Big Pharma.’ But they could soon elect a Senate that includes two pharma lobbyists and a CEO

WASHINGTON — In the past year alone, President Trump has bellyached about drug makers charging “rip-off” prices, numerous Democrats have accused the pharmaceutical industry of pure greed, and polls have shown that voters believe lowering the cost of prescription medicines should be among government’s top priorities.

But if Republicans prevail in just two nailbiter races on Tuesday, the Senate’s ranks would suddenly include two former drug industry lobbyists and even a pharma CEO.

The prospect isn’t so far-fetched. First, Patrick Morrisey, West Virginia’s attorney general, would have to triumph in his race for Senate in that state — which President Trump won by 42 points. Morrisey, a Republican, has lobbied for the drug companies Sanofi, Novo Nordisk, Novartis, Celgene, and Bayer. His wife has lobbied for the industry group BIO and a variety of drug makers including AstraZeneca and Amgen.

Second, Bob Hugin, Celgene’s former CEO, would have to win in New Jersey, a traditionally blue state in which the Democratic incumbent, Sen. Bob Menendez, has seen his lead dwindle to low single digits after weathering federal corruption charges.

If they win, the two would find a peer in Washington: Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), a former senator who retired in 2013, lobbied for the industry trade group PhRMA for three years, and then was appointed in September to fill the seat of the late John McCain.

A Senate with three Republican members so closely tied to pharma would be an unexpected start to 2019, in light of recent polling that shows voters have more faith in Democrats to tackle high drug costs by a 12-point margin — and that voters view drug makers unfavorably by a 71-21 differential.

“Patrick Morrisey and Bob Hugin would do what they’ve done their whole careers: prioritize the interests of big insurance and pharmaceutical companies at the expense of American families,” said David Bergstein, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “Both of these candidates would be a vote in favor of [Senate Republicans’] harmful agenda.”

It is common for former members of Congress to accept lobbying positions after leaving the Capitol. It is far more rare, however, that those with lobbying experience return to elected office. Hugin, the former CEO, would be joining a handful of other business executives in the chamber — all Republicans.

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Rejoining government after a career in the private sector is standard practice elsewhere in government — or at least in the Trump administration. Health secretary Alex Azar was president of the drug company Eli Lilly’s U.S. operations for five years, and Trump has tapped a bevy of other pharmaceutical lobbyists and executives to work in his administration even as he pledges to rein in the industry’s influence.

FDA chief Scott Gottlieb has advised the drug companies GlaxoSmithKline and Bristol-Myers Squibb. Three administration officials with key roles in health policy — Keagan Lenihan, Lance Leggitt, and Joe Grogan — are longtime health industry lobbyists.

It’s unclear how much influence the trio might have in a new Congress, but opponents are quick to charge that each would be another ally for the drug industry.

Throughout their campaigns, both Hugin and Morrisey have worked to shed that label. Hugin’s career as a drug industry executive has been one of the central topics in New Jersey’s race, serving as the Menendez campaign’s counterweight to Republicans’ concern about his corruption charges.

It has attracted outside attention, too, with the political group Patients for Affordable Drugs running television ads that label Hugin as “the guy who made a killing” for repeatedly raising the price of Revlimid, a cancer drug manufactured by Celgene.

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Spearheading the effort is the group’s president, David Mitchell, a longtime political consultant and a multiple myeloma patient who depends on Revlimid for cancer care. Mitchell has repeatedly criticized Hugin not just for hiking the drug’s price but for maneuvering to block prospective generic competitors — an issue that is sure to resurface on Capitol Hill next year.

But Hugin sees Washington’s focus on drug pricing as an opportunity.

“Transforming the health care delivery system and lowering costs for consumers, including for prescription drugs, will be his top priority,” said Nick Iacovella, a Hugin spokesman. “There are many things Washington has failed to accomplish, but which need to be done. Bob is running for U.S. Senate because he refuses to let health care reform be one of them.”

In West Virginia, campaign groups have used each candidate’s pharma ties as attack fodder, with a Republican super PAC hitting the incumbent Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin, for accepting campaign contributions from the drug company Mylan, which is run by his daughter Heather Bresch.

In his career, Manchin has accepted a total of $197,825 from Mylan’s political action committee and individuals employed by the company, including Bresch herself, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Morrisey, meanwhile, spent a combined eight years at two lobbying firms, Sidley Austin and King & Spalding, where he worked for a variety of drug manufacturers, as well as the Healthcare Distribution Alliance, a trade group representing the country’s major drug distributors. His wife, Denise Morrisey, is listed on disclosures with six to seven other lobbyists that account for $760,000 paid from the drug lobbying group BIO to Capitol Counsel, a firm at which she is a partner, between 2013 and 2018.

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Democratic campaign groups have also cast a spotlight onto Denise Morrisey’s lobbying work for Cardinal Health — a drug distributor that recently paid a $20 million settlement for its role furthering the opioid crisis, ending a lawsuit brought by West Virginia’s previous attorney general.

Kyl’s appointment to the Senate drew relatively little attention in the wake of McCain’s death. But as long as he stays in Washington, he will remain an emblem of the city’s revolving-door culture. (Kyl can choose to remain in the Senate through 2020, but has not made his plans beyond this December clear).

In just his last six years in the Senate, Kyl took in $235,000 in campaign donations from the industry, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

But it is his more recent career change, as a lobbyist for the firm Covington & Burling, that has drug pricing advocates concerned. PhRMA has a roughly $1.5 million annual contract with the firm — its largest for any outside group — that funded work on the group’s behalf from Kyl and anywhere from two to 11 colleagues in a given quarter.

A spokeswoman for Kyl did not respond to an inquiry regarding how the senator’s résumé might impact his approach to drug pricing issues. Following the announcement of his appointment, however, a reporter in Arizona asked Kyl whether his lobbying career posed any conflicts of interest that could impact his service.

Kyl answered with a single word: no.

This article is reproduced with permission from STAT. It was first published on Nov. 2, 2018. Find the original story here.

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