Magazine Article | May 4, 2015

It's Time For PhRMA To Get Better At Managing The Message

Source: Life Science Leader
Rob Wright author page

By Rob Wright, Chief Editor, Life Science Leader
Follow Me On Twitter @RfwrightLSL

Last month, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) held its 2015 annual meeting in Washington, D.C. In years previous, the event served as a two-day public conference scheduled around PhRMA’s annual board of directors meetings and encompassed panels and presentations. Last year’s speakers included a U.S. Senator, a Nobel laureate, and the former commissioner of the FDA. However, perhaps one of the most important presentations last year came from a patient — Suleika Jaouad. An Emmy Awardwinning New York Times columnist, Jaouad shared her experience of being diagnosed and treated for cancer. Although inspirational, her most important message came when she spoke directly to Celgene CEO, Bob Hugin, stating, “I have no words to describe how thankful I am to Celgene,” crediting the company’s chemotherapy drug, azacitidine, for keeping her alive.

Unfortunately, neither public messaging nor public attendance played a role in the 2015 annual meeting. While I applaud PhRMA’s willingness to embrace change, I question the timing as to why the organization moved to more of a “closed door” meeting this year. PhRMA informed us they just aren’t doing a public meeting this year, but are open to considering them in the future.

Though the thinking may be a strategic circling of the wagons against the barrage of recent drug pricing attacks, the shift by PhRMA may create a negative perception, providing an opportunity to be exploited by the health insurance industry.

America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) is a national trade association consisting of 230 companies. This means that AHIP has more than four times the membership of PhRMA and thus, a much larger wallet with which to wield influence over public opinion. And there are plenty of examples of how the pharma industry is losing the battle for public opinion.

For instance, in March 2015, Express Scripts, a pharmacy benefit management (PBM) company, released its 87-page 2014 drug trend report, in which it stated that overall drug spend increased by 13.1 percent. Later that month, when the Wall Street Journal published the announcement of UnitedHealth Group’s acquisition of Catamaran, the article mostly focused on how the deal was aimed at curbing rising drug costs. Citing the Express Scripts report, the WSJ article noted escalating drug prices as being “the biggest annual increase in more than a decade.”

In the report I found an interesting contradiction on page five — “Absent more fair drug pricing, payers will face half a trillion dollars in prescription drug costs as soon as 2020.” Perhaps it is time PhRMA takes a page out of the playbook of George Paz, CEO of Express Scripts. In a 2014 letter to Express Script shareholders he writes, “In this environment, the choice is clear: act or be acted upon.” Isn’t it time PhRMA stops letting health insurance Goliaths get away with continuing to successfully play the role of David with the American public? Instead of PhRMA closing its doors to this year’s annual meeting, maybe it is time to think about swinging them wide open and take charge of managing the message. If PhRMA wants to win in the court of public opinion, the message has to focus on drug price and value, not jobs and innovation.