Misleading pharma ads on Medicare target Georgia senator, voters

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Bill in Congress would save federal health insurance program, and seniors, big money

Ads are flooding Georgia airwaves and computer screens about the big Medicare spending bill moving through the U.S. Senate. One of them is aimed at U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia.

The bill “cuts nearly $300 billion from Medicare,” the ad says. “Senator Raphael Warnock, STOP THE RAID ON MEDICARE.”

The bill reduces Medicare costs by almost $300 billion over 10 years by allowing the program to negotiate prices on a few drugs for the first time, among other provisions. Medicare recipients would save on drug costs, not lose benefits.

Medicare has had to pay whatever price the drug companies requested, including for “old” drugs like insulin. The other price-lowering provisions of the bill include capping yearly price increases to the rate of inflation. The savings add up to $288 billion, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

“That ad is totally misleading,” said Ginny Helms, president of Leading Age Georgia, which supports nonprofits providing housing and other services to older adults.

Helms said she has seen the ad “a gazillion” times.

“I would bet a very large percentage of older adults are not going to know that what they’re really talking about is a deal that includes reducing the cost of medications,” she said.

“I think it’s taking advantage of older adults,” Helms said. “We’ve been talking about trying to get medications’ costs under control for a long time and this will do that. And the public’s being misled to where they don’t understand that this bill will do that.”

In addition to allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices, the bill caps price increases at the rate of inflation, caps out-of-pocket spending on drugs for many Medicare recipients at $2,000 per year, and caps the recipient’s monthly outlay for insulin at $35.

The provisions are part of the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, a scaled-down version of the legislation the Biden administration has been pushing to combat climate change and other issues since last year.

On Saturday, the Senate parliamentarian narrowed the bill’s plan for curbing drug prices but left it largely unscathed, saying provisions must be removed that would force drugmakers to pay rebates if their prices rise above inflation for products they sell to private insurers. However, the companies would have to pay those penalties if their prices for drugs bought by Medicare rise too high.

A phone call to American Commitment, the organization that aired the ad aimed at Warnock, was not returned. American Commitment has run advertising backing Republican priorities. Kaiser Health News reported the group received $500,000 from PhRMA, the main lobbying group for the drug industry.

A new group, called American Prosperity Alliance, says in another ad that the bill “will strip $300 billion from Medicare, money seniors rely on for their medicine, their treatments, their cures.”

A recent tweet by PhRMA said that “the Senate drug pricing proposal will harm the American economy” and linked to research, including a study by the respected health analytics firm Avalere.

A review of those studies show none of them drew that conclusion, though.

“We stand by our position that this draconian bill will undermine the American economy,” said Sarah Sutton, a spokeswoman for PhRMA, adding that lower Medicare drug spending would cost 600,000 jobs of people who work in the drug industry and the people they support.

“Anyone who thinks this won’t impact our economy isn’t being honest with the American people,” Sutton said.

The U.S. pays far more for the same drugs than do other developed countries, studies show. Inflation for drug prices has risen faster than for the rest of the U.S. economy. A 2020 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that top drug company profit margins outstripped other industries.

The pharma and health products industry has spent more than $180 million this year on lobbying, according to OpenSecrets.org, a nonprofit that tracks spending to influence government.

While advocates for the elderly see the legislation as a hopeful start, pharma companies see it as an ominous slippery slope to government price controls.

Last fall, PhRMA was called out by fact-checkers for running ads about the issue of negotiating drug prices, with lines such as, ‘They call it negotiation, but it really means the government decides what medicines I can get.’ "

The group that targeted Warnock with ads has also gone after West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who recently resuscitated the legislation with a surprise announcement that he would support it.

Warnock, who is seeking reelection this year, called the ads “patently false. In fact, it’s big pharma that has been raiding Medicare for years.”

He cited a Georgian he met at a recent Marietta roundtable who had maxed out her credit cards to pay for $12,000 worth of medication.

“That’s what they want to continue,” Warnock said. “And these ads are a sign that they are running scared, and that we are on the right track.”