When I was a young man, someone much more seasoned than I once told me that if I wanted the answer to anything in the world today, just follow the money. Perhaps one of my all-time favorite stories of how creative pharmaceutical lobbyists can get when they’re skirting transparency laws to curry favor with a politician revolves around one of the longest sitting Senators, his son, a lobbying firm, pharmaceutical companies and industry’s primary trade association- the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA). There are a lot of moving parts to the story so follow closely.
Let me set the stage and give you a little background that’s relevant to what I’m about to tell you. Senator Orrin Hatch was elected to congress in 1977 and has been in Washington ever since. In the 90s, Hatch helped start and is active in a local charitable organization in his home state, Utah Families Foundation. He often serves as a host at their fund raisers. The Senator has sat and/or chaired many powerful committees during his tenure, including the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. This committee provides oversight over the FDA. In fact, he has been on this committee for nearly his entire thirty-nine-year career. In addition, Hatch’s close ties to the pharmaceutical industry are well documented.
The story I’m about to tell you, as crazy as it might sound, is true and can be quickly verified with a simple Google search. It’s made possible by a couple of up and coming Washington insiders and a sitting senator’s son. The year was 2001. Jack Martin along with H. Laird Walker and Hatch’s son Scott opened Walker, Martin & Hatch LLC; a lobbying firm. During his career, Jack Martin was a staff aid to Senator Hatch for 6 years. Walker is a known close associate of the senators.
At first blush nothing seemed out of the ordinary; just another shinning example of Washington’s revolving door of power brokers. Senator Hatch told the LA Times in March 2003 that Walker, Martin & Hatch was formed with his personal encouragement and that he saw no conflict of interest in working on issues that involved his son’s clients. The Senator went on to say he sees no conflict of interest in championing issues that benefit his son’s clients.
Although the words sound righteous, what actually occurred in the shadows tends to blur their intentions. In 2008, the IRS mistakenly made public Utah Families Foundation’s tax returns revealing pharmaceutical companies and PhRMA’s contributions to the charity totaling $172,500.00 just for 2007. According to the Washington Times, Walker, Martin & Hatch LLC was paid $120,000 by PhRMA in the same year to lobby Congress on pending U.S. Food and Drug Administration legislation. Is this a coincidence or just a new tactic PhRMA employs to buy influence in congress?! It makes me wonder how many phone calls to the FDA Hatch made behind the scenes and out of sight on PhRMA’s behalf and how it may have affected our lives.
Melanie Sloan, a former federal prosecutor who now heads Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said; “This could be more common than we know.”
Ken Johnson, senior vice president at PhRMA, which began donating to the group in 2000 stated; “any charitable cause backed by Mr. Hatch automatically carries the gold seal of approval.”
Senator Hatch continues to be one of the biggest recipients of political funding from the nation’s health industry and pharmaceutical giants. When his heated reelection campaign struggled in 2012, PhRMA stepped up and gave $750,000.00 to Freedom Path, a nonprofit group that spent close to $1,000,000.00 dollars on TV ads to help Hatch win. If you think PhRMA coughed-up that much cash for a state election because of altruistic reasons you’re dead wrong. They don’t hand out a nickel without an expectation welded to it. PhRMA needed their guy in Washington to fulfill their goals.
Russ Walker, FreedomWorks’ vice president of political and grassroots campaigns, stated that; “Freedom Path is a front group set up to protect Orrin Hatch. Orrin Hatch has always worked hard for the drug lobby; he has always been an advocate for their positions.”
The Washington Times also reported that Mr. Hatch described himself to the Generic Pharmaceutical Association “as one of your good friends in the Senate,” during a speech in 2005. He urged those in attendance to “get on the Congress’ radar screen,” and adding, “I will do everything I can to help you.”
I’ve got to ask, when was the last time you heard anyone in government say to you “I will do everything I can to help you.” Did any one of the family members or friends of the 28,647 people who died avoidable deaths in 2014 from prescription opioids and heroin overdoses hear any politician say “I will do everything I can to help you” to them? Does anyone know of any lawmaker who stood up, looked their constituents in the eye and said; “we’re in the middle of a deadly opiate/opioid epidemic and this is how I’m going to end it?” I didn’t think so.
Senator Hatch is probably a really nice guy to go have dinner with; but he and his son are beholden to the very people that are fueling America’s addiction to opiates and opioids. They are bought and paid for. Hatch brazenly admits he views initiatives and legislation involving the pharmaceutical industry with a blind eye towards our health and safety. His voting record verifies it.
For his efforts, the Senator and his son are rewarded handsomely. The Hatch family has taken millions upon millions of dollars from PhRMA in the form of campaign contributions, charity contributions, and bottomless amounts of money to allied Political Action Committees (PAC), trips, favors and income. Does anyone really believe that PhRMA pays Walker, Martin & Hatch’s hefty fees for reasons other than their connection to Senator Hatch?!
It’s hard to accept that someone who claims to hold the moral mantle in government could have such a blatant disregard for the health and safety of the people who elected him to protect them. But then again, the people who elected him didn’t pour nearly as much cash into his coffers as did the pharmaceutical industry’s lobbyists.
We’re in the middle of a deadly epidemic and need to have all options on the table. Instead of taking control and putting an end to this epidemic, Senator Hatch and his associates on the hill decided to look the other way and let the markets work. 79 people will die an avoidable death today from prescription opioid and heroin overdoses. That is one hell of a price to pay for free markets. Follow the money!
Hatch is not a rogue senator; many more use the same playbook. His behavior and actions exemplifies the strangle hold lobbyists have on our lawmakers and the negative impact their decisions have on our everyday lives. What sets him apart is his willingness to embrace and benefit from the despicable culture endemic on the hill and being promoted by lobbyists in centers of government across the country.
The power PhRMA and their lobbyists wield over our lawmakers today cannot be overstated. As recently as the end of April (2016)
President Obama proposed a controversial five-year pilot program intended to lower drug prices for Medicare patients. At the heart of the matter is how doctors get paid on the drugs they prescribe. Personally, I think it would be a far better protocol if the doctors prescribed what is best for the patient and not what profit he or she makes on the different drugs; but those days are long behind us.
Upon arrival of the initiative, the pharmaceutical industry and medical community waged an immediate and aggressive campaign to stop it. PhRMA deployed one of their tried and true strategies; fear. They claim this initiative would limit patient’s access to drugs. It’s obvious to me and many other experts that the pharmaceutical industry is waging a battle to protect their profits and not our health.
Nothing really new here, except who is lining up on which side of the battle line. What surprised me along with most other observers was Nancy Pelosi’s response. The office of top Democrat in the House of Representatives helped forge a letter that cautioned fellow Democrats in their support of the President’s efforts to reduce drug prices and then circulated it among her caucus. According to the Huffington Post, whose editors have reviewed the drafts and final letter, states that, “The Democratic missive is written with an eye to those who want the rule to go forward, but don’t want to attract the ire of two powerful lobbies.”
PhRMA is so powerful that they can manipulate the top Democrat in the House into hedging on – and potentially compromising – an initiative with the potential to save America’s seniors money on the prescriptions that was proposed by fellow Democratic and President of the United States. The balance of power hasn’t been tipped; they’ve been toppled over!
California has a similar drug cost saving measure planned for a ballet vote this fall. If approved by voters in November, the ballet initiative would give the state authority to pay the same price for prescription drugs as the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA is one of the few federal agencies allowed to negotiate drug prices.
The drug industry sees this as a dangerous precedent and plans on spending over $100,000,000.00 dollars to defeat it. They’ve assembled an All-Star list of lobbyists to defeat the measure and protect their profits.
According to Politico, lobbyists have lined up some unconventional allies, such as patient advocacy and civil rights groups, raising alarms about potential economic harm to consumers and sowing doubt about the sponsors. Many of the groups signed up have received money from PhRMA and its members over the years. Once again PhRMA buys influence, only this case to blur the lines and cause fear and confusion in the populace. They’ll use tactics that many experts will have a difficult time distinguishing from propaganda. Although PhRMA’s tactics challenge moral and ethical boundaries, they are effective. Keep an eye on California this fall.
In looking into all of this, I have a renewed respect for our founding fathers. They designed a governing system around checks and balances to insure a balance of power. Millenniums have passed since our constitution was first ratified and – even with what some would describe as a few shortcomings – Democracy, based on the three pillars of governance – the executive, legislature and judicial branches – has proven to be the best form of governance for a free and open society. I’m a red, white and blue, flag waving proud American.
But as hard as they tried, our founding fathers could have never anticipated the concentration in power that trade groups like PhRMA and their lobbyists represent and their marginalizing effect on us, the citizenry. They envisioned a country where a balance existed between commerce and the populace, a government where everyone was represented fairly and equally. I deeply believe our founding fathers would be disheartened by what politicians have done with the plan they were entrusted to preserve.
With decades of tacit approval by politicians, PhRMA, its lobbyist and their counterparts in other industries, they have created a forth pillar of government. These multinational groups have infiltrated our institutions and taken over our government. PhRMA owns a majority of the politicians in both the house and the senate. They write the bills and demand their minions vote for it. Any dissent will be harshly dealt with as Nancy Pelosi quickly found out. Politicians can not get reelected without the financial support of these trade groups and their lobbyists. Like Senator Hatch, the forth pillar pays them to look the other way; so they do.
The forth pillar is effectively turning our government against the very people it is suppose to be protecting. 28,647 Americans died an avoidable death in 2014 from prescription opioids and heroin overdoses and congress cannot even pass a drug policy bill they’ve been working on for three-years! I don’t want to seem callus but more than four times the amount of Americans died from prescription opioids and heroin overdoses in one year than all of the American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. Where is the outrage in congress?!
People are inconsequential to the forth pillar. Opioids or eye drops, it’s all the same to PhRMA, just sell a lot of it. They don’t differentiate between life threatening or life saving, just profit margins. Nothing happens in Washington regarding health without PhRMA’s approval. Yes, PhRMA and the forth pillar are that powerful.
Our only option to end this epidemic is to engage our lawmakers. They need to realize that we are sitting up and paying attention to their actions. We must tell them that we will no longer sit idly by and watch this epidemic claim more lives. Connect with your lawmakers at town hall meetings, online, in blogs and any other means available to you and ask them one simple question: “what are you doing specifically to end America’s Second Opiate/Opioid Epidemic!”
John Giordano DHL, MAC is a counselor, President and Founder of the National Institute for Holistic Addiction Studies and Chaplain of the North Miami Police Department. For the latest development in cutting-edge treatment check out his website: http://www.holisticaddictioninfo.com