By Tom Benjamin
October 6, 2015 at 5:00 am ET
The widespread public perception that drug companies are unnecessarily raising drug prices to new heights to increase profits is taking a toll on the industry. Biopharmaceutical companies are being targeted by candidates for president, activists and many in the media, to name a few. As a high-ranking officer at the world’s largest generic drug-maker put it, “We need to change the way we’re viewed by the public. We’re doing good.” But “we have an image problem.” To dig out of this hole, biopharmaceutical companies need to focus more on the life-saving value of their products by highlighting the human benefits of innovation.
The debate over prescription drug costs has metastasized from a public perception issue to a hot-button political issue, already resulting in policies that are bad for current and future patients who benefit from biopharmaceutical innovation.
The Obama Administration is reportedly considering how it can limit prescription drug costs administratively without going through Congress and two Democratic presidential contenders, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, have released plans (and in Sanders’ case, introduced legislation) that would institute caps on prescription drug costs for patients.
Why is this a bad thing? The cost of developing a new drug is enormous. According to the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development, “developing a prescription drug that gains market approval” costs $2.6 billion and the vast majority of drugs that make it to clinical trials don’t get approved by the FDA. Innovator drug manufacturers must recover these costs to continue reinvesting in research and development. Artificially capping prices for certain drugs would have the unintended consequence of slowing innovation and pushing the development of new life-saving cures further into the future.
Prescription drug price increases aren’t just a concern of a small minority of constituents. All Americans have a stake in this debate. According to a Morning Consult poll, a majority of voters across both parties in the first three presidential primary states believe affordability is the most important issue facing the health care industry. 72 percent of Americans think drug costs are unreasonable and one-third of Americans saw an increase in their prescription drug costs over the last year, according to polls by the Kaiser Family Foundation and Consumer Reports, respectively.
Other evidence shows that public perception of drug companies is decidedly negative. 74 percent of Americans believe drug companies put profits before people, and that was before one brash CEO decided to raise the price of a half-century old drug by 5,000 percent – a move that was widely criticized by industry leaders. Banks and big food manufacturers have seen their fair share of controversy in the last decade, but drug companies are now more unpopular than both as more than half of all Americans admit they view drug companies unfavorably.
The combination of harsh public perception and the threat of government interference caused the Nasdaq Biotechnology Index to plummet 22 percent from its peak in July. While setbacks like these are significant, they’re short-term. The biopharmaceutical industry can change its long-term outlook by taking decisive steps to emphasize all the good things people associate with drug companies, like life-saving cures, better health and innovation. Harnessing the patient voice is job one for the industry to begin crawling out of its communications abyss.
Slick advertising efforts featuring stock photos or actors are not the solution. Rather, a genuine patient storytelling effort is required. This effort should be highly personal, anecdotal and local. This would allow patients, politicians, media and other health care sectors all caught in the crossfire of this debate to personally interact with stories of hope and cures in their own backyard that are direct results of biopharmaceutical innovation.
A sustained patient-focused campaign would outlast the ups and downs of the stock market and the 2016 presidential campaign. This steady drumbeat of personalized patient experiences would give all stakeholders a greater understanding of, and personal connection with, the real value of this industry’s innovation. The debate over prescription drug costs therefore can be framed in a human context that reflects the positive difference biopharmaceutical companies make in people’s lives every day.
There’s evidence to suggest that such a strategy would be highly effective. Consumers desire innovation across all industry sectors, especially biopharma where innovation can literally be life-saving or life-changing. 86 percent of Americans believe that developing new drugs to treat or cure devastating diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s should be a top priority for the next president and Congress, according to Morning Consult polling data.
Biopharmaceutical innovation has the potential to improve, extend and save lives in a way that no other industry can, and the vast majority of people agree. 79 percent of Americans “totally agree” that “prescription medicines help patients live longer, healthier lives.”
Just as a few bad actors personify the things people don’t like about drug companies, patients who benefit from life-saving drugs would put a human face on the tremendous value of prescription drugs and biopharmaceutical innovation in America.
Tom Benjamin is a partner at DDC Public Affairs where he leads the firm’s health care practice. For more than 20 years, Tom has designed award-winning public affairs and grassroots advocacy campaigns for numerous Fortune 500 companies and leading trade associations.