By Lindsay Toler
By Chad Garrison
By Brett Koshkin
By RFT Staff
By Lindsay Toler
By Riverfront Times
By Danny Wicentowski
By Pete Kotz
The pharmaceutical industry, led by PhRMA, had already spent $74 million for lobbying expenses in 1998. By the end of 1999, it had increased its spending by 13 percent and hired 297 lobbyists to work against the Democrats' drug-benefit proposal. According to Public Citizen, from 1997-99, the pharmaceutical industry spent almost $234 million on lobbying expenses alone.
The investment soon paid off. Republicans countered the Democrats' proposal by introducing bills to provide the federal subsidies the pharmaceutical industry wanted.
On March 25, 1999, as the Senate debated a blueprint for the federal budget, Democrats offered an amendment to create a reserve fund to pay for a Medicare drug benefit. Ashcroft, who got more than $113,000 in campaign contributions from the pharmaceutical industry during his Senate term, voted with the majority to table the proposal.
But the issue wasn't about to go away, so in July 1999, PhRMA established Citizens for Better Medicare -- a lobbying coalition of pharmaceutical interests that would, in the year to come, spend more than $70 million for TV, print and radio ads, along with a telemarketing and direct-mail campaign. The main thrust, says Dan Zielinski, spokesman for Citizens for Better Medicare, was nothing short of privatizing Medicare and allowing beneficiaries to choose from a "menu" of HMO plans. Adding an expensive drug benefit, he says, would only worsen the economic stress on a system already on the path to insolvency -- and might result in private-sector retirement plans' dropping their own coverage.
But because there wasn't much taste on Capitol Hill for the radical notion of privatizing Medicare, the organization settled on simply trying to privatize the drug benefit instead. "All of the polls say that a prescription-drug benefit for Medicare is a leading issue," Zielinski says. "So I think there's a lot of posturing among politicians to score political points. It's a hot-button issue, and what it boils down to is sound bites of people saying, 'This group over here doesn't want to help seniors,' which isn't true. Everyone wants to help seniors, but how you do it is very important. Just because you may oppose a certain approach doesn't mean you oppose the benefit in general."
At the end of July 1999, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) tried once more to create a Medicare reserve fund to pay for drugs. As the Senate debated how to use budget surplus money to cut taxes -- including a $50 million tax credit for converting chicken manure into electricity -- Kennedy offered an amendment to create a reserve fund before any tax cuts were doled out. "These Republican tax bills have $230 billion in new tax breaks for people with incomes over $300,000 a year," Kennedy said on the Senate floor. "They reinstate the three-martini lunch. They are sweetheart deals for the insurance industry, the timber industry, the oil industry and large multinational corporations. But there is not one dime for Medicare prescription drugs for senior citizens."
Ashcroft, along with 54 other senators, voted against Kennedy's amendment. (For the record, Ashcroft also voted against the $50 million tax credit for turning chicken manure into electricity.)
Soon Citizens for Better Medicare launched another huge media campaign against the Democrats' proposal for a Medicare drug benefit. These featured "Flo," an attractive, active senior citizen who tells viewers from the bowling alley where she and the "the girls have fun together" that she doesn't want big government in her medicine cabinet.
During the last six months of 1999, the health-care industry, with pharmaceutical manufacturers leading the pack, spent $117 million on lobbying expenses -- more than any other lobbying group in the country. This didn't include the $13.8 million the industry is expected to give in campaign contributions by the end of the 2000 election cycle (73 percent to Republicans) or the $7.5 million in soft money (80 percent to Republican Party committees.) In April, a vote on the Medicare drug benefit popped up for the third time. The proposal, made during a debate on budget priorities, required the Senate to consider a Medicare drug benefit before cutting taxes. Although six Republicans supported the Democratic measure, it failed. Ashcroft again voted against it.
The next month, with still more Medicare votes on deck, Citizens for Better Medicare co-sponsored a Web site titled "Call Your Grandma," which allowed 10 free minutes of phone time to people if they called their grandmothers to "alert them about Medicare's imperiled future."
By June 22, the airwaves were saturated.
As the battles over a patients' bill of rights and a Medicare drug benefit wore on, Ashcroft, along with eight Republican colleagues, quietly co-sponsored something called the Drug Patent Term Restoration Review Procedure Act of 1999. Among other things, the measure would extend the patent terms of seven prescription drugs, including the extremely popular allergy drug Claritin, manufactured by Schering-Plough, a subsidiary of the Schering Corp. If extended for three years as the bill proposed, the patents would keep generic equivalents at bay, meaning consumers would pay substantially higher prices and companies like Schering-Plough stood to make an additional $11 billion in three years' time. Of that, at least $2.5 billion would come from government health-care programs, including the Department of Veterans Affairs. If a Medicare drug benefit was ever approved, the $2.5 billion would double.