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Opinion: Trump Said He'd Battle Big Pharma. Instead, He Let It Run The White House.

From the former Eli Lilly executive running the Health and Human Services Department to the pharma lobbyists designing health policy, Trump has embraced the swamp.

Posted on January 24, 2020, at 1:19 p.m. ET

Zach Gibson / Getty Images

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, a former executive at the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, listens as President Donald Trump delivers a speech.

In 2016, President Donald Trump said, “I’m going to bring down drug prices. I don’t like what has happened with drug prices.” In his February 2017 address to Congress, he said he would “bring them down immediately.” In his 2018 State of the Union address, he said “fixing the injustice of high drug prices” was one of his administration’s top priorities. In his 2019 State of the Union address, he said of sky-high drug prices: “This is wrong, this is unfair, and together we will stop it — and we’ll stop it fast.”

Americans are facing a prescription drug cost crisis of devastating proportions, all while big pharmaceutical companies and their CEOs are making money hand over fist. In 2016, for the first time in a long time, policymakers seemed to be on the same page about the need to take on Big Pharma and tackle this challenge. Instead, three years since Trump committed to getting this done, prices continue marching upward, patients are still paying the price, and people across the country deserve to know why.

Just recently we learned that despite historic profits and continued massive payouts to its executives and shareholders, Big Pharma has once again brazenly raised the prices of over 500 drugs this year by an average of 5.4% – double the rate of inflation. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar’s former employer Eli Lilly increased the cost of its popular diabetes drug by 6%. And pharmaceutical companies have increased their prices for drugs for patients with cancer, HIV, arthritis, depression, asthma, and many other common health issues — by more than 10% in some cases.

So why is this? How could Trump make such a clear commitment, have the buy-in of members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, and still make no actual progress?

Unfortunately, the answer is clear: Big Pharma has taken just a portion of its record profits and invested in doing everything possible to prevent any policy changes that would put its carve-outs, giveaways, sweetheart deals, or profits at risk. And nowhere is this corruption more egregious than within Trump’s administration.

Here are just a few examples.

It starts at the top. Before Azar joined the administration, he was a top executive getting paid millions of dollars by Eli Lilly, including a severance package of $1.6 million, which was paid out prior to joining the administration.

Keagan Resler Lenihan — the chief of staff at the FDA and former senior counselor to the HHS secretary — ran lobbying efforts for the pharmaceutical company McKesson as senior director of government affairs from 2011–2016. In November, federal prosecutors launched a new criminal investigation into McKesson's opioid work; the company is currently facing an investor lawsuit regarding drug price-fixing.

The director of the Domestic Policy Council for the White House is Joe Grogan. From 2011 to 2017, he was a lobbyist for the pharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences. The House Oversight Committee looked into Grogan's conflict of interest; Rep. Elijah Cummings said it appeared to "run afoul of the Trump Administration’s own ethics rules." Since joining the administration, Grogan has worked to roll back drug pricing control efforts, including inviting a member of his former employer’s advisory board to speak to a working group, ostensibly trying to bring down drug prices. The Atlantic reported that he "seems poised to take his momentum into drug pricing, pushing largely to maintain the 'status quo.'"

The revolving door between government and Big Pharma has been well oiled in this administration. Mary-Sumpter Lapinski, who worked in government affairs for Bristol-Myers Squibb from 2002–2007, served as a counselor to the health and human services secretary for public health and science. As of April 2019, Lapinski is the vice president of global government affairs for biopharmaceutical company Greenwich Biosciences.

These are just a few examples from the very top of Trump’s health care and drug policy world — but the list of people in this administration who have been bought and paid for by Big Pharma, and the list of people who have left the administration and cashed out with a Big Pharma job, is extensive and growing.

This is corruption, plain and simple. It’s corruption that doesn’t just hurt taxpayers, it impacts every community in the country. And it’s corruption that needs to end.

That is why Accountable.US just launched a new campaign called Patients Over Pharma to shine a spotlight on this corruption and help people across the country learn the facts. Because we believe that people deserve to know the truth about what policymakers are doing on this issue, whom they are being influenced by, and what they can do to fight back.

The Patients Over Pharma campaign will focus on exposing the deep ties between the Trump administration and the pharmaceutical industry, the revolving door between Big Pharma and the federal government, and how this corruption is hurting patients and preventing any meaningful progress toward reducing the cost of prescription drugs.

We will expose new facts about the deep ties between drug companies and elected officials and policymakers, and make sure those in power keep their promise to lower the costs of prescription drugs for American patients and their families.

As part of this work, we will be keeping tabs and making sure the public stays updated on the latest on Trump administration officials who've made millions of dollars from the pharmaceutical industry, the number of pharmaceutical companies and lobbying groups represented in the administration, the revolving door between it and Big Pharma, and more.

Patients Over Pharma will be pushing for meaningful reforms, like the House-passed Lower Drug Costs Now Act of 2019. Trump is backpedaling from his prior support while Senate leaders are declaring it dead on arrival, but we’re going to make sure people understand the Big Pharma influence that is driving this opposition and what they can do about it.

We will be guided by a simple philosophy: Our government should be working in the interests of patients and families, not the pharmaceutical industry, its lobbyists, or its profits. Where corruption exists, the American people deserve to know about it — and we’re going to do everything we can to help make that happen. After three years of broken promises, delayed action, and blatant corruption, it’s time for patients and families to learn the facts and demand immediate action.


Kyle Herrig is the president of Accountable.US.

CORRECTION

Keagan Resler Lenihan is the chief of staff of the FDA. An earlier version of this post misstated her job title.

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