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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's bill to lower drug prices has the backing of many of the nation's biggest labor groups, including the United Auto Workers, the AFL-CIO, and unions representing teachers and other government workers.

But a wave of Facebook ads that ran this fall appeared to suggest otherwise. The ads, featuring a dejected-looking man in a hard hat, warned that the bill "threatens thousands of good-paying jobs and restricts access to lifesaving medication."

The ads were paid for by a group, the Pharmaceutical Industry Labor-Management Association, that is trying to defeat drug-pricing proposals around the country, including Congress and statehouses in Nevada, Maryland and Oregon.

The Facebook ads targeted 15 recently elected Democrats in Congress, including Reps. Harley Rouda of California and Andy Kim of New Jersey.

The group, a coalition that includes major drugmakers like Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson as well as large construction-industry unions whose members help build pharmaceutical plants and research labs, has been buying print advertisements in local newspapers, mailing flyers to voters in vulnerable Democratic districts, and hiring former labor officials and well-known union lobbyists to deliver the message. It aligns closely with the talking points of drug companies, which say that Pelosi's bill would stifle innovation and damage a vital U.S. industry.

Even in the nation's capital, where coalitions and dark-money groups are routinely used to repackage corporate interests in a more sympathetic light, the pairing of the drug industry and unions is an unusual one. Many unions, including some who are members of the pharmaceutical association, help oversee their workers' health plans and have an interest in lowering drug costs. And out-of-pocket costs for prescription drugs are a financial strain on many Americans, including union members.

"It's really odd," said Rep. Rob Nosse, D-Ore., a lawmaker who helped pass a drug-pricing transparency bill in 2018. The association, which opposes transparency bills, contending they expose proprietary information, hired the former political director of the regional chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers to lobby for the group.

Nosse said that he was surprised the unions' health care experts did not "tell them, you know what's killing our health insurance? The cost of medications."

The drug companies who are members either did not respond or declined to comment.

Tim Dickson, the executive director of the association, said the group's position was aimed at creating jobs for union workers.

"We place a premium on the partnership that yields jobs," he said. "And we have a long-standing position that we've held for quite some time that certain policies, such as price controls, will have a negative effect on union construction jobs."

Pelosi's bill would require the federal government to negotiate the prices of insulin and as many as 250 other high-priced drugs on behalf of Medicare, and impose financial penalties if companies failed to comply.

Although the bill is seen as unlikely to become law in its current form -- Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the Senate majority leader, has come out against it, as has the Trump administration -- the drug industry has fought hard against it. Its main lobbying group, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, has called the bill "devastating" and said it would lead to fewer new drugs heading to market.

Some of the bill's biggest backers are labor groups, including the national AFL-CIO, some of whose members are part of the association. A spokesman for the national federation declined to comment beyond pointing a reporter to its position supporting Pelosi's bill.

Other unions that support efforts to lower drug costs avoided criticizing labor groups, either declining to comment or choosing their words carefully.

"National Nurses United is really focused on the real culprits behind these outrageous drug prices, which is the pharmaceutical industry specifically," said Amirah Sequeira, the lead legislative advocate for the nurses union, which has not yet supported Pelosi's bill because it believes it does not go far enough in lowering costs.

Among the pharmaceutical association's members are unions that represent a variety of building trades involved in manufacturing plants for pharmaceuticals, like sheet metal and iron workers, electrical workers, and plumbers and pipe-fitters. The International Union of Police Associations and the International Association of Fire Fighters are also members. According to the association, the pharmaceutical industry is responsible for 4.7 million jobs in the United States, including many highly skilled union jobs.

A spokesman for the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, whose president, Joseph Sellers Jr., is chairman of the pharmaceutical association, said that while the union supported expanding access to prescription drugs, it also relied on companies like drugmakers to provide good-paying jobs.

"Without jobs to fund them, there are no health care plans in the first place," said the spokesman, Paul Pimentel.

Business on 12/05/2019

Print Headline: Group's ad campaign targets drug-price proposals

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