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Group pledges millions to attack candidates over drug prices

"Politicians have been in the pockets of big pharma while many patients are forced to skip meals, cut pills in half, and go into debt," a cancer patient said.
Image: A pharmacy employee dumps pills into a pill counting machine as she fills a prescription.
A pharmacy employee dumps pills into a pill counting machine.Lucas Jackson / Reuters, file

Candidates with ties to "big pharma" will soon find themselves with a target on their backs.

A new patient-driven super PAC is pledging millions of dollars in television advertising to attack and support midterm candidates based on their stance on lowering drug prices.

"This is the drug that keeps me alive. The price to make one capsule? Less than a dollar. The price the drug company charges: over $600 dollars," recounts cancer survivor Pam Holt in the first attack ad the group is running, released online Thursday and targeting Bob Hugin, a Republican challenging Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J.

"He was the CEO of the drug company that doubled the price on us," the ad continues, "while he made a hundred million dollars. Now he wants to be your senator. But I’ll always know him as the guy who made a killing ... off cancer patients like me."

The segment with a $1.5 million television advertising buy is going after Hugin because he ran a company called Celegene which raised the price on a particular cancer drug, Revlimid, 88 percent over seven years. The patients' group doesn't believe that as a representative Hugin will have their best interests at heart.

"For too long, politicians have been in the pockets of big pharma while many patients are forced to skip meals, cut pills in half, and go into debt to afford prescription drugs," David Mitchell, a cancer patient and the founder of Patients for Affordable Drugs Action, an independent group that receives no industry funding, said in a statement.

The group received principal funding from the Action Now Initiative, an advocacy organization founded by hedge fund manager John Arnold and his wife, Laura.

Hugin's communications director, Megan Piwowar, attacked Mitchell as a "Washington-based Democrat operative" and defended her candidate's record.

"Under Bob's leadership, Celgene discovered revolutionary treatments that extended the lives of hundreds of thousands of patients and they provided hundreds of millions of dollars every year to help patients afford these treatments," said Piwowar in an email.

Drug prices have risen 10 times the rate of inflation, according to a congressional report released in March. Meanwhile, more patients are being exposed to high "list prices" as enrollment in high deductible plans has increased.

The Patients for Affordable Drugs say they're the first super PAC on drug prices and the first representing patients. Besides more attack ads, they also support candidates from both sides of the aisle as long as they help people afford their medicine, starting with the re-election campaign of Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va.

"We're getting involved in races all over the country," Mitchell told NBC News, "and we intend to make a difference."