Pharma’s Revolving Door Access to Congress

The revolving door of Congress and the private sector lobbying world is still spinning without difficulty. You may have heard that the Senate confirmed Alex Azar as Secretary of Health & Human Services. Azar is a good example of the revolving door. He was an official in the Bush administration, then moved to Eli Lilly where he was made CEO, and now has moved back to the public service as a top mandarin. Azar comes with significant drawbacks for drug price advocates. When he was head of Eli Lilly the drug maker jacked up prices on many medicines, notably insulin, without hesitation. Now as head of HHS his openness to making personal importation available to more people is in question. He certainly stands to benefit from helping keep the status quo for big pharma. They will provide a comfortable fall back for him should he, like his predecessor, need to exit Trump World at some point.

This isn’t limited to Azar, the revolving door is a perennial part of the American system. But it has begged the question, more than once and by more than a few people, as to who exactly do those using the door serve. Congressional and public service is, ideally, an opportunity to serve one’s community and country in a positive way. But far too often, it’s a jumping board to more lucrative and less stressful opportunities in the private sector. Thus frequently people are cynical about congressional staffer and upper echelon public servants who seem to come and go frequently. They seem to be serving their pocket books and political ambitions above the American people. In a way the cynics are right. But when private sector employers are paying 35-40% more for a job just as interesting and less stressful, it’s tough to blame them too.

The pharmaceutical industry is a frequent user of the revolving door. According to a Kaiser Health News report, “Nearly 340 former congressional staffers now work for pharmaceutical companies or their lobbying firms…” There’s a lot of quid pro quo. Staffers on the hill are more likely to take calls and meetings with people they once worked with, they’re also looking out for their future prospects as well. Former colleagues in the private sector are well placed to help them find jobs when they leave the public service as well. Pharmaceutical companies tend to target staffers working in key committees, such as those tied to Health, Education, Labor and Employment and the Energy and Commerce Committee.

It’s mainly beneficial to private sector entities when their staffers move back into government positions. These people have been trained in industry knowledge and biases. They will be less open to changing things without industry agreement. It’s a beneficial thing for the private sector. It gives them an inroad to open and willing government officials.

The revolving door is a feature of American political life that has been at the center of institutional opposition to much reform; in particular opening up personal importation and other cost cutting measures that could force down the price of prescription drugs.

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