A national political group is wading into the contentious debate over Governor Charlie Baker’s proposal to control prescription drug costs, pledging hundreds of thousands of dollars to sway lawmakers to support the measure.
Baker, in his state budget proposal in January, included a plan to tackle drug costs in the state Medicaid program by giving the state more power to negotiate drug prices directly with manufacturers, and subjecting expensive drugs to more oversight.
The Washington-based group Patients for Affordable Drugs Now launched an ad campaign Wednesday to support Baker’s effort — which drug companies oppose.
The ads appeared as Massachusetts House and Senate leaders met to begin hashing out a final budget plan for the state. Drug pricing may be the most contentious piece of those closed-door negotiations, which are expected to continue for several weeks.
The Senate largely adopted Baker’s drug pricing plan. But the House — after heavy lobbying from the pharmaceutical industry — approved a weaker version of it. Now lawmakers are trying to find a compromise, which they will send to Baker for his signature.
The state Medicaid program, known as MassHealth, provides health coverage for more than 1.8 million low-income Massachusetts residents. The cost of prescription drugs in MassHealth has nearly doubled to $1.9 billion since 2012, according to the Baker administration.
Ben Wakana, executive director of Patients for Affordable Drugs Now, declined to say exactly how much the group is spending on advertising, except that it would be six figures.
The ads are set to appear on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and some local news sites, featuring patients who are struggling to pay for their prescription medications.
“The message of the campaign is: Drugs do not work if people cannot afford them,” said Wakana, a former Obama administration spokesman.
“If this passes, it gives [MassHealth] an arrow in their quiver to push back against unreasonable prices,” Wakana said. “I think that is an important signal to send to drug companies that have been given a free ride up to this point.”
Patients For Affordable Drugs Now is a bipartisan political group funded by the foundation of billionaire couple John and Laura Arnold. John Arnold formerly ran a hedge fund.
An affiliated political action committee funded by the Arnolds spent nearly $500,000 to help Baker’s reelection campaign last year.
Zachary Stanley, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, said it was troubling that a national group is “coming in at the very last minute and trying to influence this debate in Massachusetts.
“All they’re doing is putting the most extreme positions out there with no regard for what impact the legislation may have on protecting patients and the development of new therapies,” Stanley said.
MassBio lobbies on behalf of drug companies in the state. It strongly opposes Baker’s plan to control drug costs and has argued the policy will stifle innovation and threaten access to drugs for patients who need them.
They’re not planning a paid advertising campaign, but representatives from MassBio plan to continue lobbying legislators over the next several weeks.
“We are definitely going to be in touch with members of the conference committee,” Stanley said. “We’ve set up one-on-one meetings.”
Another industry group, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, also opposes the governor’s plan.
Baker’s proposal would allow state officials to negotiate drug prices directly with drug manufacturers. If those talks are unsuccessful, state officials could, through a public process, set a target value for a drug. They could also refer certain high-cost drugs to the state Health Policy Commission, a watchdog agency.
The commission then could require drug company executives to testify at public hearings to justify their prices. And if the commission determined a drug price is unreasonable or excessive, it could refer the matter to the attorney general’s office for investigation under state consumer protection law.
The Senate mostly backs this policy. But House lawmakers support a stripped-down alternative. They would allow drug companies to keep price information private, and they would not require pharmaceutical executives to testify under oath at public hearings.
“We have been following pharma’s attempts in the House to water down the bill,” Wakana said. “Our message is keep the bill strong.”
House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo’s office did not comment Wednesday.