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Biotech needs to polish its message as elections approach, experts say

The pollster pulled no punches: The biopharma industry has a poor public image, and politicians in both parties are ready to back drug price controls, Neil Newhouse, Partner at Public Opinion Strategies, told a June 4 panel at the BIO International Convention in San Diego.

But the public also appreciates biopharma’s innovation and contributions to health. Furthermore, appropriate messaging can improve the policy landscape, according to Newhouse and two former members of Congress who joined the panel: Kathleen Rice, a Democrat from New York, and Greg Walden, a Republican from Oregon who chaired the Energy & Commerce Committee.

According to moderator Fritz Bittenbender, SVP at Genentech and the new vice chair of the Board of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), the biotech industry must get out its message and bolster its reputation during an election year.

“Our industry needs to do better in order to create champions in Washington and in the states, and tell a different story to an American public that just isn’t understanding the value our companies are bringing to patients, and frankly, to our society,” Bittenbender said. “We have to do some things fundamentally differently, and that’s what we’re going to talk about today.”

“One thing that shined through from this panel discussion was the need to get back to the basics and put the stories of patients front and center in our work,” said Aiken Hackett, BIO’s SVP of Federal Government Relations. “Servicing the needs of patients, and alleviating human suffering, is what drives the researchers and business leaders across our industry. We need to make sure that elected officials are hearing these stories and understanding the vital role that patients play in decision making across all facets of our work.”

“This will be one of our key priorities at BIO as we engage with Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle,” she continued.

Views of biopharma, by the numbers

The panel opened with Newhouse sharing the latest numbers from his firm’s poll on the upcoming election, public opinions on biopharma, and the implications for the biotech industry.

There were some positive findings regarding opinions of the pharmaceutical industry. “Having a strong and innovative pharmaceutical industry in the U.S. is important to discover future treatments,” according to 88% of those polled, he said. And 75% believe “it’s important to remain a leader in pharmaceutical innovation.”

However, in a survey asking the public to rate their favorite from among 20 different industries they like most, restaurants, farming, and computers scored well, while pharmaceuticals was the least popular.

“The COVID bump the industry had is gone. It’s disappeared,” Newhouse said.

While the public blames the insurance industry for the higher costs of health care, the public also believes the biopharma industry drives up prices and charges too much for medicine, noted Newhouse. He added that drug prices are an issue in the current election campaigns, and the topic is likely to remain a political issue unless things change.

The need for champions

So, what can the biotech industry do? First of all, start talking to Members of Congress to ensure they understand the issues, panelists said.

Seeking influence on Capitol Hill should involve “more than throwing money at people in Washington,” said former Rep. Rice. “Throw your knowledge at them. Because most people don’t understand the issues.”

“What you need is to develop champions now,” said former Rep. Walden, “not when there’s a crisis on your door.” He recommended that biotech companies get in touch with lawmakers and invite them to visit and learn more about how the business works.

“One of the things we’re really trying to do is really focus on champion development,” especially now that Republicans have shifted from being “the party of business” to being more populist, Bittenbender said. “We recognize that in both parties now we need to really work hard to find members who understand our industry.”

Walden agreed that in the current environment both parties are likely to support continued drug price controls, and the winner of the presidential contest won’t matter. “Joe Biden will double down,” and Donald Trump would not be much better, he said. The same is true of Democrats and Republicans running for Congress, he added.

A public appeal

In this situation, Rice recommended that, in addition to talking to lawmakers, it’s important to appeal directly to voters and explain the issues affecting drug prices, such as pharmacy benefit managers and insurers.

“I think your better play is to the general public,” she said. “Speak to people in a language they can understand.”

Given that the biopharma industry has the second-largest advertising spending after retail, there should be enough funding to afford some campaign-style advertising, said Rice. “Not for nothing but you guys have the dough to do it,” she said.

Walden agreed that explaining the complex situation of biotech to the public in a clear manner would have an impact.

“You’ve got to message and you’ve got to message better,” he said.