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Washington • A Democratic House member introduced a bill Wednesday to kill a provision Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, helped slip into the fiscal-cliff deal that benefits Amgen, a major drugmaker and Washington power player.
And Hatch's colleague, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said the way the Amgen language got into the last-minute legislation is an example of what is wrong with the Senate.
"I think what it reveals is the almost complete and total dysfunction of the Senate," said Lee. "I received the fiscal cliff bill exactly six minutes before we were called to vote. We had no time to read this 153-page bill."
Lee didn't know the drug-industry language was in the bill and has yet to examine its ramifications.
Hatch stands by the bipartisan action, which gives a group of kidney-dialysis drugs, including Amgen's pill Sensipar, a two-year reprieve on government price controls. Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Hatch, the committee's top Republican, slipped the language into legislation that avoided major tax increases and spending cuts at the beginning of the year. Both were recipients of tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Amgen and its employees.
The provision received little attention until a New York Times story published last weekend highlighted the political clout of Amgen and noted critics who called the delayed price controls a $500 million giveaway to the nation's largest biotechnology company. And it came two weeks after Amgen agreed to pay $762 million in a record settlement related to illegally marketing an anti-anemia drug.
Amgen has 74 lobbyists and gives generously to congressional campaign accounts, including more than $68,000 to Hatch since 1998. That makes Amgen and its employees, Hatch's ninth largest campaign contributor, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The Hatch staffer who negotiated the language worked for Amgen from 2005 to 2009, and Amgen was the only entity lobbying for the delay, the second such delay it has received on Sensipar.
"That is why we are in the trouble we are in," Dennis J. Cotter, a health policy researcher told The Times. "Everybody is carving out their own turf and getting it protected, and we pass the bill on to the taxpayer."
Hatch considers the insinuations unfair and believes the policy is sound.
His spokeswoman Antonia Ferrier said the senator didn't act to benefit Amgen, rather the dialysis language is a small part of a broader effort to reduce the use of over-prescribed drugs.
She said the delay will make sure the government and medical providers have time to prepare for the price controls on these pills, which are now slated to go into effect in 2015.
"As to the overall process, Senator Hatch, of course, believes more transparency is better and that doing this much policy in a manner of hours without being fully-vetted by the American people is never a prudent course," Ferrier said. "He doesn't support every aspect of this legislation, but this bipartisan policy was done to ensure that patients', especially in rural areas, access to this life-saving treatment was not jeopardized.… That is what matters here."
Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., introduced a bill Wednesday to remove the dialysis drug provision, saying in a statement: "This special interest provision should have stood on its own merits with an up or down vote. It's no wonder cockroaches and root canals are more popular than Congress."
Lee sees this situation as just one example of a broader problem where the Senate, led by Majority Leader Harry Reid, allows too little public debate and two few amendments to major pieces of legislation.
"It creates an environment where members feel compelled to slip something in that ends up getting passed without ever seeing the light of day," he said.