Side Effects: Drug companies' influence felt in Washington

The political side of drug costs

TAMPA  - Why can't someone do something about skyrocketing prescription drug prices?

That is the question we've been asking all week - and trying to get you answers.

As 10Investigates found, a major part of the problem is political. The pharmaceutical industry spends a lot of money trying to make sure lawmakers are on their side.

Each year, patients consume millions of prescription drugs to stay healthy or simply stay alive. And the rising prices are taking a serious toll on America.

62-year-old Janet Snyder is a transplant patient and she says of the price increase, “It kills us, it literally kills us.”

The dramatic cost increase in the drugs Snyder needs every day forced her and her husband to alter their retirement dreams. She blames the drug manufacturers and Congress.

"It's really hard to have faith in Washington when you think that drug companies have them in their back pocket,” Snyder says.

And Snyder isn't exaggerating about the influence that pharmaceutical industry has on Washington. In addition to turning  out millions of pills each year, Big Pharma turns out millions of dollars to support the campaigns of elected officials who, they hope, will pass legislation to help the industry maximize profits.

"(It's) the most political powerful lobby in Washington,” U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) of Tampa tells us. “Pharmaceutical corporations have maximized their profits at the expense of the American taxpayers.”

Castor is talking about the $26 million the pharmaceutical industry spends on campaign contributions to members of Congress and $186 million a year on lobbyists. Castor received less than $4,000 of contribution money from the industry.

We asked Castor if she has felt pressure from the industry and she told us, “Yes. They want to operate like it is the wild west.”

Castor says part of the problem is the 2003 bill Congress passed prohibiting Medicare from negotiating drug prices with pharmaceutical companies.

Senator Marco Rubio, who was just reelected, says of the prohibition on Medicare negotiating prices, “That is something that needs to be reexamined, but there is conflicting evidence that it would lead to lower prices or not.”

Rubio, who received $221,000 in campaign contributions from the pharmaceutical industry, says Medicare isn't the answer. He says the issue is the Federal Drug Administration needs to approve drugs quicker, leading to more competition and lower prices.

We asked Rubio how much he is influenced by the contributions from the industry, which put him in the top 10 in the Senate and he said. ”None, because people buy into my agenda. I don't buy into theirs.”

In terms of Medicare and drug prices, Rubio also points to a 2007 letter from the Congressional Budget Office claiming that negotiating with the drug companies would not necessarily lower prices.

Rubio contends you have to look at it from the drug companies' point of view.

You need to have companies invest in risk money in order to innovate those new medicines, and they expect to make their money back with a profit. These are profit-making ventures.”

However, Castor, who is aware drug companies have to make a profit, has introduced legislation she says will prohibit excessive profits.

She said, “To negotiate fair prices as they do in the (Veterans Administration), that would save taxpayers billions of dollars.

Still, many patients feel like Janet Snyder does - the problem is compounded by the mixture of politics and money.

Snyder says, “I feel like the way things go in Congress and the Senate, it's controlled by who's giving them the most money.”

The top three local House members in terms of political contributions are Patrick Murphy, who was just defeated in his Senate bid, Palm Harbor's Gus Bilirakis, who said was too busy running for reelection to do an interview, and Sarasota's Vern Buchanan.

Florida’s other Senator, Bill Nelson, was on the low end of contributions receiving $10,000 from pharmaceutical operatives.

(© 2016 WTSP)


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