Los Angeles Times
AARP urged its 3.1 million California members Wednesday to vote against Proposition 78, the pharmaceutical industry’s proposed drug-discount program for poor residents.
The group also endorsed Proposition 79, a competing ballot measure backed by consumer and labor organizations that would extend discounts to up to twice as many people and give the state the power to penalize drug companies that don’t participate.
“We believe the greatest harm that could come from this would be for 78 to pass,” state AARP Director Tom Porter said. “That’s our priority: to stop 78.”
A six-member AARP executive committee unanimously approved the position, fearing that Proposition 78 in effect would end prospects for meaningful drug discounts in California for some time. The measure would make discounts optional for drug companies.
“What you are doing is you are putting in charge… the very industry whose behavior we are trying to change,” Porter said. “That sets us back for a long time.”
Political experts said endorsements by groups such as AARP would be important to voters trying to decide between two similar-sounding ballot measures.
Although both sides have lined up scores of endorsements, AARP’s is seen as particularly valuable because of its influence with Californians who are inclined to vote — and for whom affordable drugs are a core issue.
Proposition 78 picked up the endorsement last week of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. He joined what the campaign describes as a broad coalition for the voluntary discount program.
“We are very encouraged by both the quantity and the quality of our coalition members,” said Denise Davis, spokeswoman for the campaign for 78 and opposed to 79.
The pharmaceutical industry is spearheading the campaign for Proposition 78, with drug companies contributing most of the near-record $93 million raised so far.
AARP is not the only senior group taking a position on the drug discount measures. The California Senior Advocates League has taken the opposite position, and John T. Kehoe, one of the group’s founders, is serving as co-chairman of the Proposition 78 campaign.
But the Senior Advocates League has no paid members. It operates on an shoestring budget of about $120,000, of which more than 5% comes from drug company contributions. Kehoe, the former executive director of the California Commission on Aging, said that had nothing to do with why he joined the Proposition 78 campaign.
Kehoe said he believed that because the measure enjoyed industry support, it would lead to more immediate discounts for needy Californians.
The problem with Proposition 79, Kehoe said, is that “the deep pockets of the pharmaceutical people can go to court at the drop of a hat and tie this thing up for years.”
Concerns about possible legal flaws have prompted some advocates of drug price reform to remain neutral on Proposition 79. The Santa Monica-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, for example, opposes Proposition 78 but has not endorsed Proposition 79.
“Although we think 79 has some positive components, we’re concerned about future legal challenges, and we think there might be a better model that includes all Californians,” said foundation spokesman Jerry Flanagan.
The California Nurses Assn. — although actively opposing a slew of propositions supported by Schwarzenegger, including Proposition 78 — also has not taken a position on 79. “Our chief concern about 79 is that it doesn’t go far enough,” said Michael Lighty, director of public policy for the nurses union.
Like the nurses union, the California Medical Assn. supports the idea of making prescription drugs cheaper and more widely available. But the physicians organization has not taken a stand on either measure because of concerns that any program enacted by initiative would be difficult to change.
“It’s complicated, and it’s very hard to get it right with a proposition,” said Peter Warren, the group’s spokesman. “There’s no fine-tuning later.”