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Pharma Giant Gets Cozy With Congress

On September 7, Baucus' bill made a private circulation on the Hill; pharmaceutical industry cost-cutting did not exceed $80 billion. Five days later, the New York Times reported that PhRMA planned to spend up to $150 million in an advertising blitz in support of Baucus' bill. The Times noted that the ad spending "…would be a follow-up to the deal that drug makers struck in June with Mr. Baucus and the White House." On September 16, Baucus released the full text of his legislation to the public.

The White House, PhRMA and Baucus still had to fight a few battles to keep the deal intact. The key amendment targeting the PhRMA deal in committee mark-up came from Sen. Bill Nelson from Florida, which has one of the largest Medicare participant populations in the nation. The pull of constituent needs clearly put Bill Nelson into a position to push for further cost cutting in Medicare prescription drug pricing. His target: closing the "donut hole" completely.

Nelson claimed that his amendment would generate $106 billion in revenue, or from PhRMA's perspective increase their cost-cutting to $186 billion.  That would be unacceptable to PhRMA, to Baucus, to the White House and to the pharmaceutical industry who had made the deal. Other Senate Democrats, Tom Carper and Robert Menendez voted with Republicans and Baucus on the committee to defeat the amendment.  It is little surprise the Carper's Delaware is home to AstraZeneca and Menendez' New Jersey is home to Merck and Bristol-Myers-Squibb, all of which lobbied for the $80 billion cap.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid introduced the final bill, with the cap in place, on November 19. Debate began on Dec. 3, and with it come one more attempt by members to change the terms of the deal. Senator Byron Dorgan introduced an amendment that would allow for drug re-importation, but as the date for voting drew near, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) released a letter objecting to the proposal that echoed pharmaceutical industry talking points: "…as currently written, the resulting structure would be logistically challenging to implement and resource intensive. In addition, there are significant safety concerns." Dorgan's amendment was defeated with numerous Democrats previously in support of reimportation switching to "no" votes.

On Christmas Eve, the bill passed the Senate with the PhRMA deal fully intact.

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