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Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks on Aug. 27, 2021, in West Lafayette, Ind. (AP) Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks on Aug. 27, 2021, in West Lafayette, Ind. (AP)

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks on Aug. 27, 2021, in West Lafayette, Ind. (AP)

Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson October 5, 2021

Fact-checking Bernie Sanders on pharmaceutical lobbying pushback

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• The group of more than 1,400 lobbyists Sanders is citing includes more than just those representing drugmakers.

• Even the narrower category of lobbyists that covers just drugmakers includes some groups and companies that aren’t fighting Sanders, because they want to see his provision pass.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., took a shot at lobbyists for the pharmaceutical industry for blocking progress on a "human infrastructure" bill, particularly on a provision that would allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices.

During an Oct. 3 interview on NBC’s "Meet the Press," Sanders attacked drugmakers for spending lavishly to lobby Congress to fight an idea that polls have found is overwhelmingly popular. 

"The time is now for us to stand up to powerful special interests who are currently spending hundreds of millions of dollars trying to prevent us from doing what the American people want," Sanders said. "We want to lower, substantially, prescription drug costs in this country, so we're not paying 10 times more for certain drugs than Canada and other countries. And the pharmaceutical industry has 1,400 lobbyists on Capitol Hill right now trying to stop us."

In the big picture, there’s little doubt that the pharmaceutical industry throws its weight around in Washington. But is Sanders correct about the number of lobbyists fighting the drug-negotiation provision? Not exactly.

First, some background on the issue Sanders is referring to.

Medicare, the federal program that covers health care costs for Americans over 65, is barred under current law from negotiating prices with pharmaceutical companies. To the frustration of Sanders and his allies, the pharmaceutical industry is interested in preserving the status quo, which keeps prices higher than they would otherwise be. (The industry argues that cutting prices would hamper innovation by shrinking the amount of money available for research and development.)

A May 2021 poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 88% of respondents favored allowing the federal government to negotiate for lower prices on medications, including 77% of Republicans.

But pharmaceutical and health products companies have significant sway, spending more than $171 million on lobbying during the first half of 2021, according to OpenSecrets, a nonpartisan clearinghouse for campaign finance and lobbying data. That easily ranked No. 1 for any industry over that period; the second-place sector was electronics manufacturing and equipment, which spent $87 million.

Asked about Sanders’ source for the lobbyist figure, his office pointed to a database of lobbyists maintained by OpenSecrets. The database counts 1,469 lobbyists whose subject area falls under the definition "pharmaceuticals/health products."

This figure needs some important context.

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For starters, the category in the database called "pharmaceuticals/health products" includes lobbyists representing more than just drugmakers. It also includes medical device makers, nutritional and dietary supplement companies, pharmaceutical wholesalers, and companies that make personal healthcare products, such as toothpaste, said Dan Auble, a senior researcher with OpenSecrets. These industries don’t necessarily have a dog in the Medicare drug negotiation fight.

A different category in the OpenSecrets database is more narrowly focused on the kinds of companies that manufacture the types of drugs that would be affected by a new rule on Medicare negotiations: "pharmaceutical manufacturing."

The "pharmaceutical manufacturing" category includes a smaller number of lobbyists: 794.

It’s not clear that all 794 of these pharmaceutical manufacturing lobbyists would be lobbying against the drug-negotiation provision.

One of the biggest such lobbying groups is the Association for Accessible Medicines, a group formerly known as the Generic Pharmaceutical Association. The group represents companies that make generic drugs, which would likely benefit from a provision like the one Sanders is seeking.

According to OpenSecrets data, the Association for Accessible Medicines has 50 lobbyists. This doesn’t take into account other groups that might benefit from a drug-negotiation provision, such as individual companies that manufacture generic drugs. 

It’s impossible to tell from the OpenSecrets database whether a lobbying group or lobbyist would support or oppose Medicare drug negotiation, so the bottom-line number of drugmaker lobbyists fighting the negotiation provision is uncertain. 

Still, even if you add to the core "pharmaceutical manufacturing" category by including the biotechnology sector, the most recent number of lobbyists would be 1,098, Auble said. 

Our ruling

Sanders said, "The pharmaceutical industry has 1,400 lobbyists on Capitol Hill right now trying to stop" Medicare drug price negotiation.

The pharmaceutical industry has a large and well-funded lobbying operation, but Sanders’ figure for lobbyists is exaggerated. The group of 1,400 lobbyists cited in the OpenSecrets database includes more than just those representing drugmakers, and the narrower category that covers just drugmakers includes some groups and companies that want to see the Sanders-backed provision pass.

We rate the statement Half True.

Our Sources

Bernie Sanders, interview on NBC’s "Meet the Press," Oct. 3, 2021

OpenSecrets lobbying databases, accessed Oct. 4, 2021

Kaiser Family Foundation, poll, May 2021

Association for Accessible Medicines, "Medicare and Commercial Plans Fail to Get New Generics to Patients," February 2020

PolitiFact, "Klobuchar says there are enough drug lobbyists in D.C. to double-team lawmakers," July 26, 2019

Email interview with Dan Auble, a senior researcher with OpenSecrets, Oct. 4, 2021

Email interview with Mike Casca, spokesman for Bernie Sanders, Oct. 4, 2021

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Fact-checking Bernie Sanders on pharmaceutical lobbying pushback

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