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Fact-checking an ad war over drug prices

So, drug prices are obviously a big issue in this year’s midterm elections, and there is one race where that is particularly true. That’s the one in New Jersey between the incumbent, Bob Menendez, and his challenger, Bob Hugin, who literally ran a company that raised drug prices. As you can imagine, that has been a sticking point between the two candidates in their TV ads. So we thought we would take a look at some of those advertisements, and see which claims are true, which claims are debatable, and which ones are plainly false. Let’s start with an ad from Bob Menendez. “Bob Hugin said the more people need a drug, the more he should charge.” That’s not exactly what he said. The drug in question, which is called Revlimid, is now approved to treat more types of cancer than it was back in 2005, when it won FDA approval for the first time. Hugin’s logic is it is therefore more valuable, and he can charge more for it, not that just because people need it, he can charge as much as he wants. And your mileage may vary with that logic, but still. “Hugin raised the price of his cancer drug three times in one year.” Not debatable whatsoever. It is true that Celgene has raised the price of Revlimid many times since that first approval, and the claim in question — I’m not saying this solely because it cites STAT — it’s also true that they raised it three times in the course of one year. “He cut those prices in half for Russia.” This claim kind of lost me. So it is true that Revlimid is cheaper in Russia, but that’s because it faces generic competition in Russia. The idea that Bob Hugin personally slashed the price on behalf of Russians doesn’t really make any sense and isn’t really factual. Although I do appreciate that it seems designed to appeal to the Facebook- reading grandmother somewhere who thinks Vladimir Putin is president of the United States. This claim, that Bob Hugin made over $48 million over the course of 15 months, that’s true. Drug company CEOs get paid really well. So now let’s get to Bob Hugin’s response to that ad. “Bob Hugin helped hundreds of thousands of patients access and afford their medicines.” That’s probably entirely true. Celgene, like virtually every company that sells an approved drug, provides much of that drug for free to patients who can’t afford it and otherwise will offer discounts and rebates for those who might be in between. The next claim: “It’s Menendez who took nearly a million dollars from Big Pharma.” That is not false. Bob Menendez has received donations from drug companies and from drug company lobbying firms. What’s fun to remember is that among the companies that have donated to him are Celgene, and among the people who’ve donated to him are Bob Hugin, and among the organizations that have donated to him are pharma, PhRMA, which happened to be chaired by Bob Hugin in 2013. “Menendez voted for higher drug costs for seniors on Medicare. Menendez denied patients cheaper medicines.” Now Bob Menendez would probably take issue with the description of those bills, but he did vote for them. But it’s worth remembering in the context of Bob Hugin that Celgene, the company he used to run, and PhRMA, the organization he used to steer, have both spent millions and millions of dollars fighting legislation that would speed up generic drug approvals, and thus provide competition to the branded drugs that they make so much money on. If anything, this all demonstrates that the baffling and complicated bramble of policies and companies and supply chains by which people get their drugs in the United States is maybe not conducive to discussion in a 30-second ad spot. But, of course, I don’t live in New Jersey, so I don’t get to vote in this race, and far be it from me to say which of these ads is truthier. Best of luck to those of you who have to decide.

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