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October 23, 2019; Bloomberg News

NPQ has written a great deal over the years about how nonprofits must always look gift horses in the mouth, lest they lead you down a bad path, and also about the capture of nonprofit patient advocacy groups by pharmaceuticals manufacturers, which use them to lobby Congress for measures favorable to that industry. Now, we’re seeing that strategy extend to other nonprofits.

According to Bloomberg News, members of the National Sheriffs’ Association appeared on DC-area TV this past summer, appealing to national lawmakers to keep blocking the importation cheaper prescription drugs from other countries on public safety grounds. This campaign was bought and paid for by almost $1 million in grants from the Partnership for Safe Medicines, another nonprofit that is, coincidentally, “funded and operated by the pharmaceutical industry’s trade association.”

The grants were offered at a time when the Sheriffs’ Association was in bad financial shape, as it was trying, according to the organization’s own internal records and with little luck, to liquidate assets to pay overdue bills. By 2019, the Partnership contributed almost half of the Sheriffs’ Association’s total revenue. Bloomberg reports:

The commercials are just one part of a two-year campaign that used secret payments, a widely criticized consultant’s report and even celebrity drug cops to concoct public-safety arguments against drug importation and then use them to foster the appearance of widespread concern among law-enforcement groups.

Those arguments have been roundly discredited—if not hooted at—by various experts, who say they ignore various safety protocols in both the US and Canada. Still, the effort and expense that the pharma-backed nonprofit put into funding the campaign reflects the industry’s devotion to preserving the US market, where consumers often pay twice as much for prescription drugs as counterparts abroad and give pharmaceutical companies their single largest source of profit. As Congress and the White House debate proposals to limit spiraling drug prices—including unleashing the federal government’s clout to negotiate with drugmakers or tying US prices to those charged in other countries—the industry’s behind-the-scenes battle against drug importation shows how formidable a force it can be.

“It’s pretty much political theater,” said Peter Bach, director of Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Center for Health Policy and Outcomes, adding that the issue acts as “a gateway to a larger conversation about drug pricing which the industry would rather not have.” In other words, it is a stalling tactic.

The article goes on to discuss the connections between PhRMA, an industry group, and the Partnership for Safe Medicines, the nonprofit whose budget increased twentyfold in 2017—right on time to meet a more active discussion on drug pricing both at the federal and state levels.

In the past year, at least 16 states proposed plans to import drugs from Canada. Governors in Colorado, Florida, Maine and Vermont have signed plans into law. The state programs must still be approved by federal regulators, which could take more than a year. On July 31st, the Trump administration vowed to work with states to accomplish that aim.

Meanwhile, the Partnership for Safe Medicines has spent its expanded budget in ways that resemble Big Pharma’s traditional playbook: It relies on allies with top-notch reputations. In some cases, it has given money to groups like the sheriffs’ organization, which then put their own names on anti-importation ads. Meanwhile, public-relations firms with ties to the PhRMA-backed nonprofit have ghost-written articles about the issue, recruited law-enforcement officers to sign their names to them and then pitched them to newspapers around the country.

Reporter Ben Elgin goes into some of the sordid details of a financially vulnerable nonprofit mutating itself to stay afloat and a predatory and savvy industry taking advantage of the current moment and circumstances. It is not clear how much the association’s members knew about the arrangement, or about the thinness of the evidence underneath the campaign, but in one email from Tim Woods, the association’s director, the nonprofit’s stance towards the grant is pretty clear: “NSA has received a grant from the Partnership for Safe Medicines for this NSA initiative that covers ALL the ad buys and that earns NSA $125,000 over about the next 3 months.”

It’s compassionate to look at the situation through a lens that shows the clear organizational desperation at work, but then we think about the millions of patients across this country faced with out-of-control drug pricing, and the compassion flies right out the window.—Ruth McCambridge