WASHINGTON - About 50 biotechnology executives, at least half ofthem CEOs, descended on Capitol Hill on Wednesday to argue theindustry's case against drug price controls.After a breakfast briefing, they fanned out to roam the halls ofCongress on a typically sweltering July day. Groups of five to 10executives - complete with "team captains" who led the discussions- met with legislators and congressional staff in 30- to 45-minutesessions."The message we carried today is simple: neither we nor this issue willgo away," said Carl Feldbaum, president of the Biotechnology IndustryOrganization (BIO), which spent three weeks planning this first "fly-in" of its members."Our message is focused. We are taking a scalpel to these bills, a smallscalpel. We are saying that Medicare blacklisting or a breakthroughdrug committee - under any guise whatsoever - are bad forbiotechnology."In all, BIO teams met with 13 senators (8 Democrats, 5 Republicans)and 16 representatives (12 Democrats, 4 Republicans). (In a fewinstances, BIO teams met with staffers instead of directly with electedofficials.) Lawmakers targeted for the fly-in represented California,New Jersey, New York, Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Texasand Virginia.The BIO offensive comes at a critical moment in the complex healthcare reform debate. Democratic leaders in both the House and Senateare engaged in delicate, behind-the-scenes negotiations to "meld"proposals produced by four different congressional committees intotwo cohesive bills. If the House and Senate pass the melded bills (a bigif), a conference involving leaders from both chambers would reconcilethem.BIO's fly-in focused on Democrats, whose views will be influential inthe melding process. Most Republicans oppose price controls. "Thepolitical party that gives biotech away (to foreign competitors) willhave to answer for it 10 years from now," threatened Feldbaum.BIO asked its executive SWAT teams to secure commitments fromsenators to sign a letter against price controls that is being authored bySen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and addressed to Senate Majority LeaderGeorge Mitchell (D-Maine). Likewise, BIO teams sought to persuaderepresentatives to sign a similar letter being circulated by Reps. LynnSchenk (D-Calif.) and Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) that is addressed toHouse Majority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Missouri). A "debriefingform," filled out by the teams after the meetings, included a space tonote whether or not the politician made a commitment.According to BIO team members, legislators were mostly supportive ofthe industry's goals and sympathetic to its concerns. Several, includingSen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), were quick to commit to signing theanti-price control letters. Feinstein, whose state is crammed full ofbiotechnology companies (192 according to Ernst & Young's 1994industry report), is running for reelection this fall.Alison Taunton-Rigby, president and CEO of Mitotix Inc., flew fromCambridge, Mass., to be part of a team that met with Sen. TedKennedy (D-Mass.), among others. Kennedy has been supportive ofthe industry - he sponsored an amendment to the Labor and HumanResources Committee bill in May that replaced a breakthrough drugcommission with a three-year cost-effectiveness study of new andexisting drugs."We haven't managed to separate ourselves from the pharmaceuticalindustry in the public's eyes but lawmakers are getting it," Taunton-Rigby told BioWorld. "For example, once Kennedy understood thatbiotechnology was different, he changed his views on price controls."Immunex Corp.'s public affairs manager Thomas Ranken confirmedthat links with the traditional pharmaceutical industry are a liabilityhere. "There's a need for a villain in this place (Capitol Hill) and thepharmaceutical industry is right up there at the top of the list ofcandidates," said Ranken, who met with Feinstein as well as Sen. FrankLautenberg (D-N.J.).Ranken has begun sending out health care reform updates on hisSeattle company's electronic mail system as a means of keepingemployees informed about issues that could ultimately impact theirjobs. He includes the addresses and phone numbers of staterepresentatives at the end, in case employees want to get involved."The whole industry needs to get involved but just look at this fly-in.BIO has 350 members and only 50 showed up today," he said.Jason Rubin, vice president of corporate communications at WestChester, Pa.-based Cephalon Inc. told BioWorld that he heard somesobering news from Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.). "Weldon made it clearthat, without a surge of public support for biotechnology's position,there may be little that can be done [to protect against drug pricecontrols]" Rubin said. "It's clear that legislators are concerned andwilling to help us, but they made a plea for much more aggressivegrass-roots advocacy. They want to hear from patient advocacy groups,they want to read op-ed pieces in the local papers and they want to heardirectly from constituents."Rubin said the implied task - educating the public about the real risksand benefits of the drug development process and the biotechnologyindustry's precarious existence - is a daunting one.Public opinion polls show that a majority of Americans support pricecontrols on drugs. BIO team members said they fear the public doesnot understand the trade-offs. In fact, they heard from political veteranson Wednesday that some members of Congress who do understand thetrade-offs don't care."The attitude of some of these politicians is, `biomedical research is anunfortunate casualty of health care reform and nothing can be doneabout it,'" said Ranken. In fact, BIO teams avoided meeting with die-hard price control advocates and outspoken drug industry critics suchas Rep. Fortney "Pete" Stark (D-Calif.) and Sen. David Pryor (D-Ark.).But Taunton-Rigby issued a warning to such critics before rushing offdown the halls of Longworth House Office Building to a 2 p.m.meeting with yet another legislator. "Biotechnology may be the short-term casualty of price controls," she said. "But the long-term casualtywill be the American people, who will end up with less innovativedrugs, lower quality health care and rationing." n
-- Lisa Piercey Washington Editor
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