Obama, Big Pharma and Health Care Reform

We’ve long known that the Obama administration strongly courted certain industries — pharmaceutical and insurance companies in particular — to back, or at least not strongly oppose, the health care reform bill. But now it looks like they even coordinated advertising campaigns with the pharma industry:

Republicans in the House of Representatives have uncovered a trove of emails and other memos showing how the Obama administration coordinated its $150 million advertising campaign with major pharmaceutical companies.

Nearly $70 million was spent through two Super PACs — political action committees — organized in part by White House officials, including Jim Messina, Obama’s former deputy chief of staff who is now managing his 2012 reelection campaign.

Memos released Friday by the House Energy and Commerce Committee revealed the close links between the Obama administration and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, also known as PhRMA…

Democratic consultants working with the White House on health reform asked to meet backers of the law “to discuss our ad campaign,” Ron Pollack, executive director of the Families USA consumer group, said in a June 2009 e-mail to PhRMA.

“As I mentioned previously, I wanted to get some guidance from the White House about their messaging and how our effort can be consistent with that,” Pollack wrote.

The email was among materials compiled by the House Energy and Commerce Committee as part of a probe to determine how the White House interacted with the drug industry as the health reform legislation took shape.

This is pretty much all hypocrisy from the Republicans (after all, they didn’t probe the even deeper policy relationships with the Bush administration in pushing the Medicare Part D legislation), but what is important is how it highlights the influence of money in politics. Obama had little choice but to work with the industries that stood to win or lose as a result of the bill in order to get it passed. And we’ve known about the tradeoffs they made from the very beginning.

The tradeoff was that the White House agreed to fight against any legislation that would allow the federal government to negotiate a better deal on drug prices through Medicare. The government is currently forbidden from engaging in such negotiations, which was part of Bush’s Medicare Part D bill. In exchange for that payoff, the pharma industry helped advocate for both bills under both presidents. The tradeoff with the insurance industry was to agree to bury the public option and single payer and make the centerpiece of the bill government subsidies to buy private insurance.

These kinds of tradeoffs are absolutely routine because they are demanded by the way the political system works today. The influence of vast amounts of corporate money is so enormous when it comes to any bill that will seriously affect their profits that such payoffs must be made in order to keep those companies from spending billions of dollars to kill the bill in Congress. And that’s the real problem here. There is no room for doing the right thing, only for doing the most expedient thing, even if it results in very bad public policy.

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About Ed Brayton

After spending several years touring the country as a stand up comedian, Ed Brayton tired of explaining his jokes to small groups of dazed illiterates and turned to writing as the most common outlet for the voices in his head. He has appeared on the Rachel Maddow Show and the Thom Hartmann Show, and is almost certain that he is the only person ever to make fun of Chuck Norris on C-SPAN.

  • Who Knows?

    So, the GOP who has been saying for years now that the President and Congress need to work with the job creators are upset that the President and Congress worked with job creators?

  • d cwilson

    It’s a travesty that our politics are such that in order to get anything done, you have to tradeoff one corporate interest against another. Given that, it’s a miracle we managed to get the health care reform bill, as watered down as it was, passed at all.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=597316935 ashleybell

    It’s amazing how Americans in general hold Democrats to a higher standard. Even the Republicans…How convenient. It’s like the Republicans have all but admited that they are ‘the bad guys’ in this western picture-show, and seem shocked that we would call them on it or that sometimes the democrats wear the black hat/

    ‘Hey dem! you can’t wear that hat, that’s OURS!”

  • gvlgeologist

    I was going to comment on the hypocrisy (damn, it took me a long time to figure out how that’s spelled!) of the Repubs, but ashleybell made me rethink it.

    Maybe the Repubs really aren’t being hypocritical. Maybe they really think that Demos are more ethical than they are, and thus SHOULD be held to a higher standard. Kind of like not being surprised if a kid eats with their fingers, but being outraged if an adult does.


  • uzza

    I’m always nonplussed to learn how the elites have raised Xty-X million dollars to … get a candidate elected, pass legislation, wev … and apparently all that money is spent for ads on TV. ?

    Since I don’t watch TV, all that money is wasted on me. But it seems everyone else in the US watches it, complains about it, and does what it tells them. It’s very odd.

  • valhar2000

    How do corporations “kill a bill in Congress”? Do they fund commercials, fund telemarketing campaigns, bribe legislators, or something else?

  • d cwilson


    They bribe legislators, only they call it a “campaign contribution”, so it’s all perfectly legal.

  • http://www.pandasthumb.org Area Man

    It’s amazing how Americans in general hold Democrats to a higher standard. Even the Republicans…How convenient. It’s like the Republicans have all but admited that they are ‘the bad guys’ in this western picture-show…

    Yeah, my favorite instantiation of this is when the Republicans blame the Democrats for not stopping the Republicans. Like how our current problems with the looming expiration of the Bush tax cuts, a renewed debt ceiling debacle, and other needed reforms is all the fault of the Democrats for not acting when they had a super-majority for a few months in 2009. Or how the Iraq war is really the responsibility of Senate Democrats, because even though a majority voted against it, enough voted in favor to allow the authorization to pass.

    The Republicans seem to believe that they lack free agency and have no control over how they vote on things, which leaves the other side responsible for everything by default.

  • d cwilson

    Area Man:

    That’s what makes them the Party of Personal Responsibility.

  • naturalcynic

    How do corporations “kill a bill in Congress”? Do they fund commercials, fund telemarketing campaigns, bribe legislators, or something else?

    yes, yes, yes, and yes

  • Chris from Europe


    Plus, they threaten to do it. You don’t need to bribe a legislator when he or she fears you.