Big Pharma Deploys Defensive PR Strategies in the Face of Pricing Controversies

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Public outrage over aggressive pharmaceutical price hikes is growing as the incidences of price gouging seem to be increasing exponentially. The two most recent public scandals — Turing Pharmaceutical CEO Martin Skrelli’s decision to increase the price of the antiparasite drug Daraprim from $13.50 to $750 a pill and Mylan’s price increase of 600% for its widely used EpiPen – highlight the failure of the pharmaceutical industry to adequately explain or justify its pricing practices.

But that is not for lack of trying. Big Pharma is responding in two ways to public outrage over its pricing increases. First, firms such as Mylan have made a big display of offering assistance to low-income patients. The chief argument leveled by critics of the pharmaceutical industry is that its pricing structure is literally killing people who are unable to afford the medications they need.

In response, in television commercials for prescription drugs, viewers are encouraged to contact manufacturers if they need help paying for their medication. Pharmaceutical giants look like philanthropists while passing on the cost of these programs to insured patients and to the taxpayers when the firm takes a tax deduction for their “charity.” The price remains exorbitant while Big Pharma ducks accusations of price gouging and comes out looking benevolent.

Pharmaceutical industry leaders have also come under fire from Congress recently, which necessitated their second PR strategy. Pharma firms and their lobbying group, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), insist that the pricing structures employed by pharmaceutical firms are designed to ensure the availability of resources for research into breakthrough, life-saving drugs.

In the face of public controversy and Congressional inquiry over pricing, PhRMA has launched a program called “Hopes to Cures.” The program is centered in Washington, DC and aims to draw a connection between individual patients with deadly diseases and the purported necessity of high pharmaceutical pricing as an engine for research and development. The program includes television and Internet campaigns as well as visits with state lawmakers, Congress, and public panels during which patients are used as the face of Big Pharma and plead the industry’s case for them. As the public’s outrage continues to grow, PhRMA and the leaders of pharmaceutical firms will likely step up their PR efforts, but it seems unlikely that firms will be able to continue with business as usual.