CHC News

Coalition Meeting: Moving Forward in Washington, D.C.

Nov 18, 2016 – Although many in the medical marketing industry were bracing for a post-election drug pricing battle with Hillary Clinton, instead they are taking a beat and preparing for the uncertainty of a new regime under President-elect Donald Trump, according to speakers at the Coalition for Healthcare Communication’s member meeting held Nov 15-16 in Washington, D.C.

“I expected us to continue our focus on the drug pricing issue, but the one candidate who didn’t say much about drug pricing will be the president of the United States,” said Sharon Callahan, CEO, TBWA/WorldHealth, and Coalition Board Chair. “Maybe we can use this lack of noise to get our message [about value] out there – take a lesson from Trump and sell our brand.”

Coalition members attending the meeting were briefed on why the presidential election went the way it did, what the political climate in Washington might be in the near future, and what it all could mean for the biopharma industry. Bruce Haynes, President and Founding Member, Purple Strategies, explained the election outcome in advertising terms: “Clinton was the candidate who sold features and benefits,” Haynes said. “Trump sold the brand.”

Haynes added that this election was about people in communities where closed manufacturing plants have left giant economic holes. “People desperately wanted change. They wanted it in 2008 with Obama and they gave him another chance in 2012, but they were disappointed, so they picked an outsider,” Haynes said. “It was about rejecting the establishment.”

Indeed, Trump’s victory “was a rejection of gridlock and Washington culture,” according to Peter Kosmala, Senior Vice President, Government Relations, at the 4A’s. “Voters were attracted to a candidate who was different and committed to fundamental change,” he said. “It was not really a partisan divide, but more of a societal and community divide … with the vast mid-section of the country swinging very significantly toward Trump.” Kosmala also stated that during the campaign there was an over-reliance on models, trends and history, and an under-reliance on social listening.

Pam Jenkins, President, Powell Tate/Weber Shandwick, noted that although healthcare was not “front and center” in the campaign, “themes in the media and on social media are that the healthcare system is broken and we have to fix it.” One particular challenge to healthcare marketers seeking to reach the public with its value message is breaking through the self-selected media bubble to connect and communicate, she stated.

As Trump assembles his Cabinet, his choice for Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services will be very important. “Whoever is picked is going to have an incredible amount of influence over what happens,” Jenkins said, as this choice will affect positions at the FDA, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health.

Mike McCaughan, Senior Editor at Prevision Policy and The RPM Report, said that disruption is not good for the FDA. “The biggest risk for pharma is that the FDA climate gets worse, and right now is the best FDA climate of all time. When you are at the peak, gravity is not your friend,” he stated. Also, considering that the GOP historically takes longer to fill the FDA Commissioner job, that any hiring freeze could impact CDER (which has many open positions), and that the seasoned CDER managers now in place are nearing retirement, the change ahead for the FDA may actually slow down, not hasten drug approvals, according to McCaughan.

Adding to these concerns is the uncertainty about how Trump will actually govern. McCaughan explained that Trump could go the traditional route of picking a governor for head of HHS, or he could take another uncharted path, which is “wild – you don’t know what will happen if he goes down that path.”

And when it comes to Obamacare, which Trump has said would be repealed during his first 100 days in office, “I don’t see why repealing the Affordable Care Act is inherently a good thing for the drug industry,” McCaughan said. “There are certainly a lot of ways to make it better for the biopharma industry and a lot of ways to make it worse, but it’s definitely uncertain as to how it plays out.” He said it may be likely that Trump would repeal the ACA now, make it effective in 2019, and then work on what the “replace” will be.

Jenkins concurred that “after 50 attempts to repeal Obamacare, there will be a 51st attempt,” but she noted that “Trump has said he won’t rip healthcare from 20 million Americans.” However, he could use budget reconciliation to strip out pieces of the program, which would require only 50 votes to pass.

When discussing the prospect of tax reform and the possibility of eliminating the drug marketing tax deduction, several speakers told Coalition members that Trump’s higher priority issues – jobs, the economy, infrastructure and border security – could give the industry some time before the tax issue is addressed. When you consider that presidents typically “get one or two bites at the apple and then get bogged down,” Haynes said, ad tax reform “is a threat to this industry but not an immediate threat, which gives us time to get engaged.”

McCaughan also asserted that although the drug pricing issue is not going away, because “Republicans don’t like spending too much money on anything,” the industry “has a golden opportunity to make the message be about the value of medicines.”

Jenkins suggested that industry members use this time to ensure that their positions are clear to legislators. She said there will be extreme competition for attention on Capitol Hill, because every entity has an agenda and will be lobbying for it. “Now there is a reason to go out and get your voice heard. It’s an interesting time in communications,” she said.

Moving forward amidst so many changes and so much uncertainty will be challenging, Callahan said. “I don’t think there are any easy answers here, [but] we have heard some good news today in regard to our industry and the Coalition’s mission – promoting and protecting the benefits for society and individual patients of the free flow of information. We clearly need a narrative that’s easy to understand and we have an opportunity to create that.”

Jenkins suggested one way to frame that narrative in a populist way – by highlighting “the hope for cures. Remind people of the power and the promise of research.”