Critics call effort to aid poor a tool of big drug firms

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It's billed as a grass-roots effort to improve patient access to quality health care.

But a new coalition headed by Duane Bourdeaux, a former legislator turned crusader for the poor, has members of Utah's advocacy community distancing themselves from what they're calling "a front" for the pharmaceutical industry.

Bourdeaux denies drug makers are trying to hide behind his group, Utah Advocates: A Partnership for Healthcare. He said no effort has been made to disguise that his salary and seed funding are paid by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA).

"I commend them for wanting to be in the grass roots and be a player," said Bourdeaux. "Health care is a complicated issue and sometimes the public and policymakers don't have all the information they need to make wise choices."

But promotional materials make no mention of ties to PhRMA, say advocates who declined invitations to join the coalition.

At least three nonprofit groups - AARP Utah, the Utah Health Policy Alliance and the Community Action Program of Salt Lake - rejected invitations.

They fear the effort is aimed at defeating any proposals for a preferred drug list in Utah. Backed by senior health officials, such a plan would let the state negotiate with drug companies for lower prices by joining a multi-state purchasing pool and creating the list.

It is believed the move would lower the cost of prescription drugs for Utah's 290,000 Medicaid patients.

The pharmaceutical industry opposes the measure, arguing it limits patient choice.

"We're very wary of their motivations," said Laura Polacheck, associate director at AARP Utah.

Utah is one of only a handful of states without Medicaid preferred drug lists. Other states include Colorado and New Mexico, where PhRMA-funded advocacy coalitions also are popping up.

The coalitions are coordinated by a political consulting company in Denver, the Kenney Group.

Political insiders call such moves "Astroturf lobbying" because the grass-roots effort is manufactured, said Jon Looney, director of AARP Colorado. "It's a common tactic by the pharmaceutical industry to get others to carry their water for them."

Looney said the coalitions woo local advocacy groups to join by offering tens of thousands of dollars in grant money.

In Colorado, the Kenney Group leveraged the power of minority groups, health care providers and disease foundations to quash a preferred drug list, said Kelli Fritts, a lobbyist for AARP Colorado.

Their message was that drug lists hurt ethnic minorities who are prone to certain diseases and can have unique reactions to drugs, said Fritts.

"There are certain communities that have more diabetes, but to say they react differently to prescription drugs, there are no studies to prove that," Fritts said.

Bourdeaux, a black Democrat who formerly represented a district in Salt Lake City peppered with some of the most diverse and poorest neighborhoods, confirmed he is committed to eliminate disparities in health care.

But he said, "I was not hired to talk about a preferred drug list. If I'm asked to lobby, I'll consider it. But right now I'm bringing partners to the table."

Bourdeaux won't divulge how much PhRMA is paying him, saying he has no plans to register as a nonprofit or political action committee, which would require such disclosure.

Shannon Csotty, the political consultant at the Kenney Group who hired Bourdeaux, also refused to say how much PhRMA is investing in Utah.

"PhRMA funds it, but they don't get more input than any of the other partners. They don't drive the agenda," said Csotty.