Battle over drug pricing comes to Ohio with costly campaign, TV ads

3.7 million Ohioans caught in the middle as major ballot initiative heads to voters this fall.

The first volley of TV ads are launching this week in the campaign to convince Ohioans how to vote on a controversial drug pricing law that will be on the November ballot.

The fight over the ‘Ohio Drug Price Relief Act’ is expected to be costly and contentious. A similar measure in California last year drew a record $128 million in campaign spending.

If Ohio voters approve it, the citizen-initiated statute would require state and other public entities to pay no more for prescription drugs than the prices paid by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, which receives a 20- to 24-percent discount. It would apply to entities including the state of Ohio, the five public pension systems, Ohio Medicaid, the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation, state prisons and others. All told, the program would impact 3.7 million Ohioans.

Related: Prescription drug prices: an investigation in to costs

The Relief Act campaign is already drawing hot rhetoric from both sides.

“The drug industry’s TV ads should come with a U.S. Surgeon General’s warning: The lies being spread by the corporate drug cartel and by their CEOs are hazardous to the health of millions of Ohioans, including 164,000 children,” said Dennis Willard, spokesman for Ohio Taxpayers for Lower Drug Prices. The act is a chance for Ohioans to save $400 million a year and send the message that “they are fed up with the drug industry ripoff,” Willard said.

Ohioans Against the Deceptive RX Ballot Issue point to a 74-page study produced by former Ohio Medicaid officials and funded by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, a trade group of drug makers.

Related: Three reasons prescription drugs cost so much

“The policy analysis completed by two former Medicaid directors, Maureen Corcoran and Barb Edwards, along with other state procurement and health policy experts in Ohio, that concludes the ‘Ohio Drug Price Relief Act’ will not work, is flawed and doesn’t address how the current methods and agreements the state has in place for the purchase of prescription medications for various programs,” said Jenny Camper, spokeswoman for Ohioans Against the Deceptive RX Ballot Issue.

The study concluded that it’s not even possible to determine the exactly how much the VA is paying for drugs. Opponents say the Relief Act could have the opposite effect of raising drug prices.

Former U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Anthony Principi warned in a Feb. 2017 letter to veterans groups that the proposed law is “a risky scheme that could result in higher prescription drug copays and reduced access to medicines for Ohio’s 866,000 veterans…”

Related: Consumers kept in the dark over drug pricing

Each side claims a broad coalition of supporters but there are two big funders squaring off. The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America opposes it while the California-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation supports it. Last fall, California voters rejected Prop 61, a similar issue with the same opponents and supporters. The Los Angeles Times reported that supporters raised $19 million while opponents raised $109 million, making it one of the priciest ballot issues in California history.

Spending on prescription drugs hit $425 billion in 2015, or $310 billion after discounts and rebates, according to the IMS Institute for Healthcare Infomatics.

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