Conservatives target swing-district lawmakers over bill to control drug costs 

Drug affordability board is target of ad campaigns

By: - April 13, 2023 6:01 am

A billboard targeting Sen. Grant Hauschild, DFL-Hermantown, saying the drug price control board would “put Big Insurance and PBMs over patients.”

Conservative groups are targeting swing-district Democratic lawmakers with ads that portray a drug price gouging bill as a gift to insurance companies and middlemen. 

Democrats say the ads amount to misinformation meant to provide cover for the pharmaceutical industry and its gargantuan price increases in recent years. 

The conservative groups are going after a bill that would create a Prescription Drug Affordability Board to set limits on costly drugs.

A Senate bill (SF168) sponsored by Sen. Kelly Morrison, DFL-Deephaven, and a House bill by Rep. Zack Stephenson, DFL-Coon Rapids (HF17) have been wrapped into catch-all budget bills (HF2680/SF2744).

Stephenson expects the legislation to pass, despite what he says are misleading ad campaigns. He’s in a swing district, too, where he often gets targeted over controversial bills.

“It’s totally expected,” he said. “They know it’s going to pass and they’re trying to stop it.”

Billboards target Stephenson, Rep. Matt Norris, DFL-Blaine, and Sens. Grant Hauschild, DFL-Hermantown, and Heather Gustafson, DFL-Vadnais Heights, saying the legislation would “put Big Insurance and PBMs over patients.” (PBMs are pharmacy  benefit managers, which are middlemen between drug companies and patients and have grown immensely rich and powerful in recent years.) 

The ads are paid for by Minnesotans for Freedom, which is registered to Annette Meeks, CEO of the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota, a right-wing think tank. The Freedom Foundation did not respond to a request for comment.

Newspaper ads target Rep. Jeff Brand, DFL-St. Peter, and Sen. Rob Kupec, DFL-Moorhead, claiming the bills pave the way for “Big Insurance and the PBMs they own to make record profits, at the expense of patients.”

Stephenson said a “who’s who of big pharmaceutical companies” oppose the bill and are “fighting jealously to protect those absurd profit margins.”

The argument that the bill would benefit insurance companies is “false on so many different levels,” he said. Payment limits would apply throughout the supply chain, he said.

The board wouldn’t set cost limits for every drug, or even most drugs, he said, but only those with costs deemed unreasonable. He likens it to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission’s oversight of gas and electric rates.

Six states — Colorado, Maine, Maryland, New Hampshire, Ohio and Oregon — have passed similar bills creating drug affordability boards, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Other states are considering them.

Progressive political group TakeAction Minnesota and the Minnesota Nurses Association, a nurses union, said the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America is the real intended beneficiary of the ads, while hiding behind so-called patient groups. PhRMA — a trade group representing drug makers — has also bought full-page, color ads in the Star Tribune opposing the bill.

PhRMA argues the government should not be allowed to decide the prices of medicine. They say a 50% decrease in the medication prices would cause a 25% to 60% decrease in the number of new drugs, according to one estimate. And they say price controls delay getting drugs to the market. 

PhRMA sued Minnesota in 2020 to block implementation of an emergency insulin law.

“They engaged in scorched-earth tactics, fighting inch by inch by inch — they never want to give up an inch of ground,” Stephenson said.

When the state House passed a bill creating a Prescription Drug Affordability Board in 2021, the pharmaceutical industry tripled its lobbyists and spent more than any other industry trying to block it, TakeAction and the nurses union said. The bill died in the GOP-controlled Senate. Last year, pharmaceutical companies and trade groups came armed with 60 lobbyists. 

Take Action and the nurses union say the legislation would build on the state’s price transparency legislation. The groups say price limits are common in the health care industry, with insurers limiting what they’ll reimburse and purchasers negotiating charges throughout the supply chain.

Stephenson said this is the classic playbook Big Pharma uses when lawmakers try to control drug prices: scare people and point fingers.

“That’s why it’s so hard to make change in health care to bring down costs for people who are struggling,” he said. “Because the stakeholders who have the ability to print money use it to spread misinformation.”

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs.