Kaiser Family Foundation Gives Stage to Opponents of Prop 61's Drug Pricing Reform

What do supporters of drug price negotiation have to say when the pharmaceutical industry tries to shoot down drug pricing reforms?

You'd never know if you were watching Tuesday's webcast on prescription drugs and “Election-Cycle Proposals for Lowering Costs” hosted by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) charity, which runs the nonprofit news service Kaiser Health News.

Those who tuned in heard a spokeswoman for the drug industry argue that allowing the government to negotiate lower drug prices, as the Veterans Administration (VA) does, is a bad idea for consumers.

Prop 61, on California’s November ballot, would require the state of California pay no more for prescription drugs than the discount prices negotiated by the VA.

A spokeswoman for the pharmaceutical lobby group PhRMA got to make her case against Prop 61 with no rebuttal, because KFF would not invite a consumer, patient or Yes on 61 representative to join the panel and give listeners a balanced view of the initiative.

The panel was billed as a discussion of state drug price reforms, "including California, which has a ballot measure that would prohibit state agencies from paying prices for prescription drugs that are higher than what the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs pays."

Monday, when we discovered there was no consumer voice on the panel, Consumer Watchdog wrote to ask KFF President Drew Altman to remedy the bias and include both sides of the debate. 

“The Kaiser Family Foundation has had a reputation of presenting both sides of an issue, but tomorrow's one-sided event threatens that reputation and the foundation’s charitable mission. This is particularly true as the Foundation is developing its news service as an independent voice on healthcare matters. …It’s inappropriate for a charity to include one side in such a debate and not the other.”

KFF refused, but their emailed response acknowledged that to have the drug lobby weigh in on Prop 61 without an opposing viewpoint would be improper. KFF's VP of Communications wrote: “In a discussion with the PHRMA rep, we agreed that should the California proposition come up, it would not be appropriate for them to weigh in on it.” They also changed the description of the event on their website to eliminate any mention of Prop 61. 

KFF must have asked its panelists not to mention the measure after receiving our letter, because no one said the words "Prop 61." But the PhRMA rep took advantage of the platform she was given. She spoke about voters’ choices as she argued against allowing the government to negotiate lower drug prices:

“We’re not having a very honest conversation about the trade-offs here, because there’s a sense that you can have Medicare set the price for some of those higher-cost medicines without any reduction in access. And the experience just shows that’s not the case. That’s not the way it works in VA it’s not the way it works overseas. Of course governments can and do set prices, but when they do it generally reduces choice.

“And if you ask people, voters, what they want of course they’ll say they want lower prices, everyone wants lower prices for everything right. But if you ask them what’s more important to you, do you want the lowest possible cost for your medicine or do you want to have access to a wide array of new treatment options, and have some choice there, people will generally always choose choice.”

The opposition to Prop 61 has hung a shingle on this access claim, hoping to scare voters into thinking they'll lose their medicine if drug companies can't keep price-gouging California taxpayers. 

It's all over their website, like this line: "Experts warn that Prop 61 would actually increase prescription drug costs for the state and reduce patient access to needed medicines for the few state programs the measure does cover."

We're not the first to question how KFF expects to discuss the drug pricing problem without a consumer at the table. A member of the public posted this comment to Twitter during another KFF drug pricing web event, that featured speakers from a drug company, a pharmaceutical benefits manager, and a health insurance company, but no consumer voice: "If you continue to have #healthcare discussions without the end users,patients, never expect sustainable solutions."

It's inappropriate for a charitable organization to give a stage to just one side of an initiative debate, especially one that is supposed to be running an impartial news service.  

PhRMA has spent $471 million to oppose Prop 61, and is responsible for bundling the nearly $90 million the pharmaceutical industry has raised to fight the initiative.

This post was paid for by Consumer Watchdog Campaign - Yes on 61, Major Funding by Yes on Prop 61, Californians for Lower Drug Prices, With Major Funding by AIDS Healthcare Foundation and California Nurses Association PAC. FPPC ID#1387641

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