As beachgoers soaked up the sun on a balmy August day in Ocean City, Md., single-engine planes circled above trailing banners hawking seafood deals, happy hour specials, and in one case, a plea: “CUT DRUG PRICES NOW,” the sprawling streamer begged in block letters. Some 450 miles away in Charlotte, N.C., an ominous TV ad proclaimed: “The big drug companies have been price gouging us for years.” A similar message boomed during commercial breaks in Phoenix, Louisville, Ky., and Bangor, Maine, too.
It’s all part of a multimillion-dollar campaign against the pharmaceutical industry and its high prices — but it’s not coming from hospitals or Democratic presidential candidates. The push is from AARP, the seniors organization better known for travel deals and discount car insurance.
And it’s a sweeping and aggressive offensive from the group, which until now has been known as cautious, deliberate, and consensus-focused. Since March of this years, AARP’s white-haired “strike force,” as the organization calls them, is on the offensive like never before — bashing big business with a righteous indignation that could surprise activists decades younger and positioning AARP as the drug industry’s primary opponent.
Positioning itself as pharma’s main antagonist, however, has opened up the group to a new line of attack from PhRMA, the drug industry’s lobbying arm, which has launched something of a counter-offensive campaign. Its ads zoom in on the roughly $600 million AARP rakes in each year from selling private Medicare Advantage and Medicare supplement insurance plans to its members. That hefty sum, PhRMA says, raises serious questions about the motivation behind AARP’s push.
Seniors dressed as pill bottles have gathered outside the Denver office of Republican Sen. Cory Gardner with a clear message: Vote to lower the cost of prescription drugs.
And if there was any doubt of its target, the group’s first commercial cleared that up: An ominous voice declared, “The big drug companies don’t see us as people,” as the faces of top executives from Johnson & Johnson, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and AstraZeneca filled the screen.
As Congress returned home for recess, the group was organizing protests around the country, meeting with more than 100 lawmakers and their staff, blanketing congressional districts around the country with radio and TV ads, and swarming community events from state fairs to dragon boat festivals to collect more than 1 million signatures on petitions urging Congress to act.
The group has focused in particular on the Senate Finance Committee’s sweeping drug pricing package, a bipartisan effort that some see as the most likely piece of drug pricing legislation to advance to Trump’s desk this year. AARP helped consult on the policies included in the package, as did drug makers.