(781) 786-2662

Pols Two-Faced on Drugs

Jul 15, 2011Boston Herald, Council in the News

By Christopher R. Anderson

Pop quiz: Which Massachusetts state official has done the most to help the biopharma industry?

Hint: It’s not someone who has gone on a “trade mission” or attended a national biotech conference in Washington.

According to some of the largest biopharma powerhouses in Massachusetts, the answer is: House Speaker Robert DeLeo, who, in a business of show horses, is establishing himself as Beacon Hill’s workhorse.

Among the commonwealth’s many diverse and critical scientific and technology sectors, biopharma is a prime economic engine. It employs nearly 47,000 people earning $4 billion. As of 2010, Massachusetts biopharma companies had 895 therapies in development — an astonishing 11 percent of the U.S. and 5.5 percent of the world drug pipelines.

So it’s not surprising that Massachusetts politicians would trip over themselves trying to become the industry champion.

But how necessary is government, especially in a down economy, for a growing sector such as biopharma that has the private venture capital markets investing billions in Massachusetts biopharma employers? And while trade missions are nice, does anyone think an industry with worldwide brands needs an introduction to, say, the European market?

The dirty little secret in the industry is that Massachusetts, home to one of the country’s largest biopharma economic clusters, is by far the most hostile to the industry. Political leaders have gotten away with having it both ways — praising the jobs biopharma creates when that suits them while bashing the industry as greedy big business when that suits them.

That’s where DeLeo is different.

For example, Massachusetts has a so-called “gift ban” that purports to stop evil drug companies from corrupting doctors with the occasional lunch. In reality, the Massachusetts-only law has created unnecessary red tape for biopharma companies, interrupted the flow of clinical information from manufacturers to doctors, and hurt the state’s convention business.

An example of the kind of DeLeo’s unsexy hard work: He met with a group of biopharma companies to hear about the difficulties they have in conforming their compliance systems to the restrictive law of a single state. Responding to the concerns raised by both the biopharma and convention industries, the House this year repealed the gift ban (as did the state of Maine). But the repeal was defeated in the Senate.

Massachusetts has another dubious distinction: We are the only state that prohibits drug manufacturers from offering coupons or running discount programs, even though they would save consumers — especially those with rare diseases taking expensive therapeutics — significant money in co-pays and deductibles. The coupon ban also hurts pharmacists along the Massachusetts border who lose customers to competitors in neighboring states.

For two years in a row, the House passed legislation eliminating the coupon ban.

And for the second year in a row, the Senate inserted a provision that would result in no discounts being offered.

The Senate language, rejected by the House, would require a discount to last forever — which of course is not a discount but a price control. The cynical cleverness at work is that senators know they can’t politically be against something that saves consumers money — especially at a time when rising health care costs have become such a concern — so instead they insert a fatal poison pill.

There have been and will be many more occasions for elected state officials to support job growth policies to create more competitive environments for all sectors within our diverse and innovative technology economy.

But in the case of the recent opportunities described here, it was DeLeo and members of the House who listened to the concerns of an industry that employs nearly 50,000 fellow Massachusetts residents and, without fanfare, did the unglamorous hard work of helping them.

That’s real leadership.

Christopher R. Anderson is president of the Mass. High Technology Council.

Increasingly, the Massachusetts High Technology Council is stepping up to create, execute, and lead critical statewide competitiveness strategies. Fostering a vision for our innovation economy under the MassVision2050 banner, the Council solidifies its position as a thought leader providing valuable insights to navigate emerging technologies, facilitates long-term planning, and reinforces the Council's commitment to excellence and action in the evolving Massachusetts tech-driven economy.

To learn more, contact Council President Chris Anderson.