‘In the Pocket of Big Pharma’: Ad Says About Silicon Valley Congresswoman

SAN FRANCISCO — A group that’s buying ads to try to elevate the issue of high drug prices in the midterm elections has identified its latest target: a Democratic congresswoman from Silicon Valley who wants to lead on health care issues.

Patients For Affordable Drugs Action will spend $500,000 on ads attacking Rep. Anna Eshoo for her legislative record and for accepting campaign contributions from the drug industry, the group announced Friday. Eshoo is expected to be re-elected easily in November.

The super PAC is led by David Mitchell, a cancer patient and a veteran of Washington health policy circles. Most of the group’s funding comes from John and Laura Arnold, a billionaire couple in Houston who have taken an interest in shaping the debate around drug pricing.

Eshoo is the third politician that Mitchell’s super PAC has targeted this campaign season. The super PAC is also running ads against former Celgene executive Bob Hugin, who’s running for Senate as a Republican in New Jersey. And it’s running ads supporting Rep. David McKinley, a Republican from West Virginia, because it approves of his voting record when it comes to efforts to lower drug prices.

The super PAC, which has a seven-figure budget to try to impact the midterms, isn’t spending enough to meaningfully shape the outcome of races it’s playing in. And so far, it’s intervening in races that are far from battlegrounds: Eshoo, for example, won over 71 percent of the vote in her district in 2016, while McKinley won 69 percent.

Compared to the super PAC’s other targets, Eshoo has the closest ties to party leadership — and the deepest demonstrated interest so far on legislation related to health care.

In 2014, Eshoo lost a tight race against Rep. Frank Pallone, a Democrat from the biopharma hub of New Jersey, to chair the Energy and Commerce Committee, which is influential on matters concerning health care and biopharma. She lost despite the support of key Democratic leaders, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Since then, Eshoo’s shown a continued interest in health care issues. In 2017, she stepped down as chair of the energy and commerce subcommittee focused on technology, saying she was turning her attention to health care. She’s a current member of the energy and commerce subcommittee focused on health, and could be a contender to lead that subcommittee after its current head retires next January.

In the open primary in June, in which the top two voter-getters advance regardless of their party, Eshoo won over 72 percent of the vote. Her Republican opponent Christine Russell, a longtime chief financial officer for tech companies, got 24.5 percent of the vote.

The ads from Mitchell’s super PAC will be targeted online and by email to voters in Eshoo’s district. In a not-so-subtle jab, one ad depicts a polaroid-sized photo of Eshoo literally slipped into the pocket of a professional wearing a white lab coat.

“When politicians like Congresswoman Anna Eshoo take money from Big Pharma, it’s hardworking Californians desperate for lower prescription drug prices who are being hurt,” one of the ads says.

One ad says that Eshoo has accepted $1.58 million in lifetime contributions from companies that make pharmaceuticals and other health products – more than any other sitting House member. STAT verified that figure using the campaign finance data site OpenSecrets.org. The figure tallies both contributions from companies’ political action committees and individual company employees contributing $200 or more.

The haul speaks both to Eshoo’s longevity — she’s been in Congress for 25 years — as well as the demographics of her district, which is home to a cluster of drug makers both large and small.

Just below Eshoo on the list of House members who’ve taken the most lifetime campaign money from the drug industry is Sen. Richard Burr, a Republican from the biopharma hotbed of North Carolina who has accepted $1.53 million over the course of his career. Rounding out the top five are Michigan Republican Rep. Fred Upton ($1.47 million), Pallone ($1.29 million), and outgoing Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan ($1.27 million).

In a statement issued on Sunday, Eshoo’s re-election campaign said she “has consistently championed affordability, innovation and patient protections for prescription drugs.” The statement said Eshoo “supports price negotiations in Medicare Part D to drive down costs,” but it did not elaborate on how her view compares to that of the Trump administration, which has proposed to give Medicare Part D plans more negotiating power with drug makers.

The statement from Eshoo’s re-election campaign also noted that Eshoo has called for hearings on prescription drug costs and that she is pushing for legislation to enable pharmacists to inform patients about less expensive options for their medication.

The ad from Mitchell’s group also accuses Eshoo of pushing to delay the entry of low-cost biosimilar and other follow-on competitors onto the market. A decade ago, Eshoo was behind a law that granted a 12-year exclusivity period for original biologic products — hotly debated and still sometimes challenged by critics who thought it was five years too long. That original 2009 legislation, called the Biosimilar Price and Competition Innovation Act, was enacted as part of the Affordable Care Act. Eshoo’s campaign said in its statement that the law helped bring to market “low-cost versions of the most expensive drugs.”

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