WASHINGTON, July 16 (UPI) -- A consumer advocacy group joined several senators and representatives Tuesday in charging the pharmaceutical industry with using a seniors group as a front to run an ad campaign promoting industry-favored legislation providing for a prescription drug benefit under Medicare.
"United Seniors Association is essentially acting as a hired gun for the brand-name prescription drug industry," Frank Clemente, director of Public Citizen's Congress Watch, said at a news briefing on Capitol Hill.
Public Citizen alleged in a report released Tuesday that the lobbying group for the pharmaceutical industry, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, funded much if not all of the $4.6 million ad campaign run by United Seniors in May and June, supporting the Republicans' prescription drug bill in the House.
The House Republican plan, which was passed last month, is favored by the drug industry and "would provide Medicare beneficiaries with subsidies to buy private insurance rather than create a comprehensive drug coverage program through Medicare -- the favored proposal of most seniors and consumer groups," Public Citizen said in a written statement.
The consumer group also alleged PhRMA may have provided the United Seniors Association with millions of additional dollars to fund the ad campaign as far back as 17 months ago.
The pharmaceutical industry has an "anti-consumer, anti-senior agenda" and "they don't want a Medicare prescription drug benefit," Clemente told United Press International. "But rather than running an ad campaign under their name, they're running it under a senior association's name."
Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., noted USA 10 years ago was accused by the General Accounting Office of distributing inaccurate information pertaining to the healthcare reform debate.
PhRMA rejected Public Citizen's accusation that they were using USA as a front to support their own agenda. "We've made clear from the get go ... that we gave USA an unrestricted educational grant," PhRMA spokesperson Jeff Trewhitt told UPI. "But it is unrestricted and they can do with it as they see fit."
Trewhitt conceded, however, "We knew before we made the unrestricted grant that they agreed with us on the prescription drug benefit plan." He added PhRMA has not endorsed any bill and in fact objects to certain provisions in the Republican plan.
Several Democrats from both sides of Congress were on hand to support Public Citizen's accusations and promote the Democrat prescription drug benefit plan.
"I applaud (Public Citizen's) investigation into United Seniors Association, which exposes the shameless lengths to which the prescription drug industry will go to hoodwink the public and to support sham legislation which promises a Medicare drug benefit but delivers nothing to American's seniors," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.
USA "is a tool of the drug industry -- nothing more and nothing less," he said. "It deserves to be exposed as such."
"PhRMA has chosen ... to promote a plan that is good for them but bad for senior citizens," said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., referring to the plan passed by the House.
"There is nothing in (the House) plan that guarantees a prescription drug benefit," Stabenow said. It leaves it up to insurance companies whether to offer a benefit to seniors, and the bill does not guarantee reduced drug costs for seniors or coverage for those with incomes below the poverty level, she said.
Congressman Marion Berry, D-Ark., called the House bill the "biggest joke there ever was," noting all it does is take federal dollars and give them to the insurance companies.
"The Republicans and PhRMA have teamed up ... so they can continue to rob the American people," he said.
Most of the Senate Democrats favor a bill co-sponsored by Kennedy that would provide a prescription drug benefit under Medicare at a cost of $500 billion over six years.
A tri-partisan bill introduced to the Senate Monday would cost $370 billion over 10 years and largely rely on incentives offered to private insurance companies to induce them to offer a drug benefit to seniors, similar to the plan passed by the House.
The Senate was expected to debate the merits of the various prescription drug benefit bills beginning this week, but Republicans objected and have delayed the matter coming to the Senate floor.