Grass Roots or Astroturf?

by CO State Rep. Jack Pommer

Voters across Colorado are getting an odd political ad in the mail. It accuses state representatives of voting against drug discounts that would save Coloradans money. The ad is odd for two reasons.

First, it’s only attacking legislators who voted for drug discounts. They voted for a bill that would make Colorado part of a multi-state buying pool. That pool uses its buying power to negotiate discounts with drug companies. Those discounts save the states money when they buy drugs for Medicaid, and states can pass on those savings to people without insurance. If you have insurance, your insurance company already negotiates discounts.

Second, the ad comes from PhRMA. PhRMA is financed by the big drug companies, like Pfizer, Schering-Plough, Merck, Boehringer Ingelheim, Bayer and others. PhRMA spends a fortune fighting to keep people from getting discounts on drugs. Why would it attack a legislator for voting against discounts?

To understand that, you have to know that PhRMA is the pharmaceutical industry’s version of the Tobacco Institute. It does the industry’s dirty work so the companies themselves and their executives can (try to) keep their hands clean. That’s what’s going on in Colorado this campaign season. PhRMA is punishing legislators who stood up to its legion of lobbyists. Accusing legislators who voted for a drug discount of voting against a drug discount is a small deception by PhRMA standards.

A better example of the pharmaceutical industry’s tactics is a new group called Access Colorado: A Partnership for Healthcare. What is Access Colorado? Remember how the tobacco industry pushed its agenda with front groups like the Center for Consumer Freedom and Californians for Statewide Smoking Restrictions? That last one is a bit of PR brilliance; it was a Philip Morris creation set up to eliminate smoking restrictions in California. And it could have been a model for Access Colorado.

Access Colorado popped up last month promising to advocate for Medicaid patients and to “reduce the barriers and eliminate the disparities to quality care and treatment for the uninsured, underinsured, minorities and underserved communities.”

It’s brochure announced a kickoff luncheon at Kevin’s Taylor’s at the Opera House restaurant, which “can be accessed via a sweeping glass and terrazzo staircase descending from the lobby of the Ellie Caulkins Opera House. The atmosphere is elegant, open, warm and artistic.” Sounds nice, but not typical for groups that advocate for Medicaid patients.

But then the group may be saving money on rent. It’s address is the same as The Kenney Group, a political consulting company that specializes “in crafting integrated communications strategies and delivering effective tactical plans that achieve our clients’ objectives with measurable results.” RSVPs for the luncheon are directed to Shannon Csotty of The Kenney Group.

What are the Odds?

And here’s a coincidence. Last month a group called Utah Advocates: A Partnership for Healthcare popped up in our neighboring state. Sounds similar, but wait, there’s more. The Salt Lake Tribune reports that the Utah group’s director was hired by Shannon Csotty of The Kenney Group in Denver. That group’s materials, like the one in Colorado, never mention any ties to the pharmaceutical industry. But Utah Advocates director, a former state legislator, admitted to the paper that PhRMA is paying his salary and funding the group. Even so, he insists that Utah Advocates really is a grass roots group just interested in helping people get healthcare.

Real grass roots groups in Utah aren’t buying it. At least three of them turned down an invitation to work with Utah Advocates. They say the don’t have any interest in working with a pharmaceutical industry front group.

There’s one more coincidence I think is important to note. Utah and Colorado are among the few states that still don’t negotiate discounts with pharmaceutical companies. For years, every bill to do it here was killed in the legislature. Since Democrats won the majority in 2004, bills have passed out of the legislature, but were then vetoed by the governor. Given the way the political winds seem to be blowing, a similar bill may have a chance at become law next session. Might be just the time for PhRMA to fund an astroturf group to fight it.

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