Every time I say this it sounds hyperbolic, but I’m saying it again: Big Pharma owns our government, and we will never find a cure for their price gouging until we get it back.
This Thursday, the Senate Finance Committee will convene for their confirmation hearing of the insulin price-gouger and all-around slimeball Alex Azar, former CEO of Eli Lilly.
Here’s my problem: the 26 members of the committee — the 12 Democrats and 14 Republicans tasked with deciding whether or not to recommend handing our healthcare over to a Big Pharma kingpin — have taken over $6 million from Big Pharma in the last 10 years alone; $7 million if you go back another five years.
Some wonks might want to quibble with my language (“ahem, technically an industry cannot own humans”), but that looks an awful lot like Big Pharma owning our government to me.
The industry spends more money on lobbying than any other. But unlike most other major industries, Big Pharma’s donations are about evenly split between the two sides of the aisle: last year alone, pharma corporations and their lobbying arm, PhRMA, doled out a whopping $22 million in lobbying and campaign contributions, split about 60/40 between Republicans and Democrats respectively.
They’re probably hoping they’ll get their money’s worth this week, as Azar goes up before the Senate Finance Committee for this final confirmation hearing. Because not only has the committee accepted a ton of cash collectively, but of the 26 of them, there isn’t a single one who hasn’t taken some amount of money from Big Pharma in the last decade. And there’s only a small handful who have taken less than six figures.
Topping the list is Sen. Orrin Hatch, a longtime friend of Big Pharma. Here’s a gross story about Orrin Hatch you might not know: last year, the country of Colombia was in a price war with price-gouging pharma giant Novartis, and Hatch threw his hat into the ring like a cartoon mobster. His office sent the Colombian embassy a thinly veiled threat: back off, or risk losing U.S. aid for Colombia’s ongoing peace process. I am not making this up!
And coming in at number three is Democrat Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, one of the unofficial HQ’s of Big Pharma. You might remember Sen. Menendez from his spot on the list of Democrat senators who voted against a measure that would have let us buy cheaper medicine from Canada earlier this year. His colleague, Sen. Cory Booker, took so much flak from his spot on that list that he stopped accepting Big Pharma contributions altogether; Sen. Menendez clearly did not feel compelled to do the same.
Other notable names include Republican Sen. Richard Burr of NC, who received $1.2 million from drug makers, medical device companies, and healthcare PACs during his 2016 election bid alone (“I told my pharmaceutical clients to get down there and help,” said one anonymous lobbyist); Democratic Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, who has taken over $160,000 specifically from members of the Pain Care Forum, an opioid manufacturers’ group; and Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, who fought hard for the TPP to include guarantees that drug corporations would get 12-year monopolies and full pricing power in in developing countries.
Once the Senate Finance Committee has had their hearing, they’ll have three choices. They could vote to report Azar “favorably”, which would put us just one Senate vote away from handing one of our most important departments, including the FDA and our public healthcare systems, to a Big Pharma kingpin. They could also report him with a neutral “no recommendation,” which would ultimately be the same thing.
But they could also vote to report “unfavorably.” If they do that, the entire Azar train could come to a screeching halt. Because while Azar’s fate will ultimately be decided by the full Senate, only one cabinet position in the entire history of the U.S. has ever been confirmed after an “unfavorable” vote (and that was back in 1945). It’s very much possible that Azar’s nomination could be pulled altogether if the vote is unfavorable, to avoid the potential embarrassment of losing the final vote.
So here’s what I propose: we need at least 14 of these people to vote unfavorably for Alex Azar. The bottom 14 senators on the list include folks like Sen. Maria Cantwell, Sen. Sherrod Brown, and Sen. Ron Wyden, who have been legitimately decent on issues like healthcare and labor. I would argue that all 14 of them have a lot more to gain by standing up for the overwhelming majority of their constituents who want affordable medicine, than by carrying water for Big Pharma in exchange for sums of money that are pretty paltry, relative to the top half of the list.
And the Democrats on the bottom of the list definitely have a lot more to lose by voting for this guy than they would gain in Big Pharma favor: the backlash that hit Sen. Booker so hard will look like child’s play compared to what we’ll do if they approve Azar.