Opinion

Cory Booker’s Disingenuous But Revealing Pharma Switch

The jaws of public opinion are closing shut on the increasingly isolated and embattled pharmaceutical industry. Apparently, keeping prices sky high while trying to defend monopoly-level powers might just be politically unfeasible as a strategy. Who knew?

Not only that, but the latest casualty in pharma’s attempt to keep up this unsustainable strategy is a big one – namely, Senator Corey Booker. According to InsideHealthPolicy, Booker, who has previously been a major target of donations by the industry, to the point where he arguably depends on their cash to fill his campaign coffers, has made a drastic about-face. Now, Booker says he will no longer accept donations from the pharmaceutical industry, and wants to work on a solution to the drug pricing problem without regard for the industry’s sacred cows.

Now, to be strictly accurate, Booker is almost certainly not doing this out of the kindness of his heart. Rather, it is almost certainly motivated by political considerations. Booker has recently (and correctly) taken a lot of hits (including from me) for basically following pharma’s line on drug reimportation policies, even going so far as to kill a bill that could’ve seen major reform in the area. Most of the criticism of that decision, or at least most of the relevant criticism of it for Booker’s purposes, comes from the progressive Left, in spite of the fact that the bill had the backing of the unlikely combination of Sens. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) and Ted Cruz (R-TX).

Further, it’s not clear how much of a commitment Booker actually has to trying to fight high drug prices, pharmaceutical money or no. None of the bills he has signed onto since his apparent change of heart have Republican cosponsors or Republican support, which suggests that he’s throwing his weight behind theatrical gestures rather than anything that has a chance of passing the Republican-controlled Senate.

Further, given that a large segment of the Senate’s most diehard conservatives are also trending away from Pharma, it is hard to believe that Booker couldn’t find a bipartisan bill to support if he really wanted to. In fact, I can name at least one: the Creating and Restoring Equal Access to Equivalent Samples (CREATES) Act of 2017, which makes it far harder for pharmaceutical companies to second guess the FDA’s safety judgments on the manufacture of generic drugs, effectively cutting off one of pharma’s more effective weapons for stopping otherwise perfectly legal competition from occurring.

In other words, despite the existence of at least one pro-consumer, bipartisan bill aimed at drug prices, Booker chose to only go with the no-hoper partisan options. His willingness to buck Pharma, then, looks more symbolic than anything else.

However, cynical as Booker’s move appears, it still tells us something vital about the shifting policy consensus on high drug prices, as well as the political incentives surrounding the issue. Pharmaceutical companies have virtually owned debate on this issue in recent years, and cutting high value checks to both parties (though with favoritism toward establishment Democrats) mostly insured that such a state of affairs would continue. Now, however, that no longer seems to be the case, if even top recipients of pharmaceutical money like Booker are high-tailing it away from them. In an ironic twist, the industry appears to still have friends in the Trump administration, despite the President’s high octane anti-Pharma rhetoric during last year’s campaign.

But if Booker can be talked off the train, even those holdouts might not be far behind. Because one thing is certain: Pharma’s public image has a fever. Unfortunately for them, the only prescription is competition.