WASHINGTON -- As Congress struggles with a massive health care overhaul, several lobbying powerhouses — including the pharmaceutical industry and the nation's largest advocacy group for retirees — are locked in a contentious fight over the future of biotechnology drugs.
Both sides have spent heavily to sway lawmakers in the debate over how long to keep the expensive drugs exempt from generic competition. President Obama is pushing for seven years of exclusivity as he looks to trim costs to help pay for his health care plan — five years less than what the industry wants.
"If you extend that 12 years, obviously it's better for (drugmakers') bottom line," Obama said Friday. "But it also means you're keeping important drugs off the market and driving up those costs further."
The pharmaceutical industry counters that a longer period of exclusivity is needed to recover its investments in "biologic drugs," which are made from living organisms and used to treat cancer, multiple sclerosis and other serious diseases.
"We understand that it's important to save money in our health care system, but it's also important to save lives," said Ken Johnson, senior vice president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. He said the group has spent "several million" on ads promoting longer exclusivity rights.
He said a shorter period of market exclusivity "will chase off investors and drive research and development overseas." Johnson noted that drug companies have agreed to shoulder $80 billion of the health plan's cost in part by lowering prices of drugs for seniors purchased through Medicare.
The Biotechnology Industry Organization, which also backs at least 12 years of exclusivity, recently spent $300,000 on advertising.
On the other side, the AARP spent nearly $90,000 in May and July to press its case in advertisements targeting selected lawmakers, spokesman James Dau said. The AARP is part of a broad coalition that includes generic-drug makers, consumer groups and labor unions.
The newspaper and airwave battles represent just a slice of the spending.
A report out Tuesday from the watchdog group Common Cause found that large drug companies and their associations have spent $238 million to lobby Congress and federal agencies since 2007.
Records show that the groups backing greater competition from generic copies also lobby heavily. The AARP, which represents 40 million older Americans, spent nearly $57 million on lobbying during the same period, according to data compiled by the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics.
This month, a Senate committee approved 12 years of exclusivity. Attention shifts to the House, where a companion, 12-year bill sponsored by Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., has 139 co-sponsors — compared with 14 lawmakers who back a competing measure that would allow generic competition after five years. Eshoo said she is working to incorporate her plan into the larger health care bill the House Energy and Commerce panel will consider when Congress returns in September.
Opponents of the 12-year period, such as Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said they plan to wage a fight on the Senate floor to remove the provision from the health care package.
Mark Merritt, who heads the Pharmaceutical Care Management Association, said the battle is a test of "Washington's real capacity for change." His association, which represents companies that manage drug benefit programs for employers, supports five years of exclusivity.
"If Washington is unable to get real reform in biologics, it's a terrible bellwether for health care reform," Merritt said.