More than $20 million in ads to hit Ohio airwaves on drug prices ballot issue

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More than $20 million in ads to hit Ohio airwaves on drug prices ballot issue

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Pill bottles sit on the shelf of Waynesville Pharmacy. If approved, Issue 2, an initiated statute, would limit state expenditures on prescription drugs for about 4 million Ohioans. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Get ready to see more ads from both the supporters and opponents of state Issue 2, the prescription drug price ballot initiative.

The campaigns have already been saturating Ohio airwaves with ads urging voters to adopt or reject the measure, and spending on media is expanding starting this week.

The “Ohio Drug Price Relief Act,” which voters will see on the Nov. 7 ballot, would require that state agencies like the Department of Medicaid pay the same or lower prices for prescription drugs as the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Proponents say the measure will save the state between $350 million and $400 million annually that could be used for other state programs, like fighting the opioid epidemic. The opposition — financially backed by big pharma, but made up of dozens of organizations representing veterans, doctors, nurses, pharmacists and business — says the measure is unworkable and won’t produce the promised results. They say it could actually lead to higher drug prices for the majority of Ohioans who get prescriptions through private or employer insurance.

So far, the ad war has been lopsided in favor of the opposition, Ohioans Against the Deceptive Rx Ballot Issue, which has outspent supporters by about 5 to 1. That trend is expected to continue as the No campaign is funded by the deep-pocketed Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), a trade organization that represents dozens of major drug companies.

Ohio Taxpayers for Lower Drug Prices, the proponents, is mostly funded by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, a California non-profit that serves AIDS patients around the globe, including through several pharmacy locations in Ohio.

According to the Columbus Dispatch, Issue 2 opponents have purchased about $19.5 million in airtime, including about $1.7 million for the current week beginning Wednesday. Those numbers include ads on both broadcast and a variety of cable channels in 11 cities, including three in West Virginia, according to the Dispatch.

The anti-issue spending for the week is highest in the three Cs: Cleveland ($380,261), Cincinnati ($354,119), and Columbus ($284,147), records show.

Issue 2 proponents have spent or purchased about $4 million on television advertising, including roughly $1 million in the current week, according to the Dispatch reporting.

Matt Borges, former GOP state party chair and a supporter of the ballot issue, said the ads are ramping up because this is the time when voters start really paying attention. 

“We’re up against an onslaught of spending by the drug companies who are trying to confuse voters,” he said.

Dale Butland, spokesman for the opposition, said the campaign is fighting an uphill battle to educate voters.

“Their whole pitch is, ‘You want lower drug prices?… Vote yes,’” he said. “That’s a very attractive proposition to people, because so many people are struggling to pay their drug costs. So what we have to do is explain to people that something that sounds really good, is not in fact a good idea, will not do what it promises, and in fact will only make things worse. That’s a much more expensive proposition than the other side.”

According to the most recent campaign finance reports, which were filed June 30, PhRMA gave $15.8 million to the opposition campaign. AHF contributed nearly all of the $3.6 million that `Issue 2 proponents reported receiving. The next filing deadline in not until late October, a couple of weeks before the election.

The campaign could end up being the most expensive in Ohio history. A similar measure in California, with backing from the same two sides was defeated last year 53 percent to 47 percent. For that campaign, supporters spent $19 million and opponents nearly $110 million.

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