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Drugmakers try to steer seniors' votes to GOP

By SARA FRITZ, Times Washington Bureau Chief

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 2, 2002


WEST PALM BEACH -- Even at age 90, Art Linkletter's familiar television voice and visage evoke a feeling of trust.

WEST PALM BEACH -- Even at age 90, Art Linkletter's familiar television voice and visage evoke a feeling of trust.

"America's seniors deserve the best of health and to get the most out of retirement," he says. "Prescription drugs help us achieve that."

As Linkletter talks to potential voters in this TV commercial, the following message plays across the screen: "Congressman Clay Shaw is fighting for real prescription drug coverage."

This commercial, appearing regularly on local stations, has been a boon to the re-election campaign of Republican Rep. Clay Shaw. It has helped to defuse Democrat Carol Roberts' effort to blame Shaw for the failure of Congress to make prescription drugs more affordable.

The irony is that the ad was created by an organization that gets millions of dollars from drug manufacturers. It is the successful result of an unheralded election year partnership between the Republican Party and the pharmaceutical industry.

Earlier this year, most Democratic strategists predicted that Roberts could defeat Shaw simply by highlighting his ties to a drug industry that is often accused of gouging seniors by charging high prices for medicine.

Roberts has made a point of bringing the subject up whenever possible. "The drug companies are the third candidate in this race," she declared.

When her approach failed to weaken Shaw's popularity in a district he has served for 22 years, Roberts came up with a bolder campaign tactic: 1-866-RX-CAROL, a toll-free hotline that offers to help seniors order lower-priced drugs from Canada. It has received more than 3,000 callers and generated widespread attention for Roberts in the news media.

But the Democrat is still trailing Shaw in the polls. And GOP Rep. Mark Foley, who represents a neighboring district, says Shaw -- like most Republican incumbents around the country -- has succeeded in dampening the importance of the drug issue in the Nov. 5 election.

"It's an important issue, particularly among seniors," Shaw adds. "She brings it up often. But she doesn't seem to be getting any traction with it."

Secret alliance

Drug industry executives have contributed a record $22-million to the candidates and parties in the two years leading up to this election, about three-fourths of it to Republicans, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.

But it seems the industry has had an even bigger impact on the election by making contributions to two interest groups that produce television advertising and mailings for candidates who support the drug manufacturers. These are United Seniors Association and 60 Plus, both of which boast of being "conservative alternatives" to the AARP.

The link between these groups and the drug industry was never meant to be disclosed to the public. But Public Citizen, a Ralph Nader-backed watchdog organization, uncovered the relationship this year, and officials of PhRMA, the drug industry's lobbying arm, later acknowledged giving the United Seniors Association money.

Neither the association nor 60 Plus will discuss the matter. Officials of the two organizations declined to be interviewed for this report.

Frank Clemente, a spokesman for Public Citizen, estimates the United Seniors Association and 60 Plus are spending $17.6-million on advertising for congressional candidates in this election. By operating as a nonprofit lobbying group under tax law, he says, they are also evading a law requiring political organizations to disclose their donors to the FEC or the IRS.

The United Seniors Association is proud of the Linkletter ad, which has appeared on television stations in about 20 congressional districts. Sixteen of these districts are held by Republicans. The ads can be viewed on the group's Web site, www.unitedseniors.org. Although Linkletter retired from television years ago, he is still an excellent TV salesman. His message is particularly comforting to older Americans, who remember his popular television House Party and his trademark feature, "Kids Say the Darndest Things." In more recent years, he wrote a book, Old Age Is Not for Sissies.

60 Plus, likewise, has been responsible for mailings on behalf of Shaw and other Republican incumbents. The brochures 60 Plus mailed to households in the district are a strident attack on Roberts' proposal to reimport drugs from Canada, which it says would be risky for seniors with life-threatening health problems.

While most drug companies have chosen to wield their political influence through these two seniors groups, one corporation is taking a more direct approach.

Pfizer is funding its own ads, which argue that high drug prices are necessary to cover the heavy cost of research and development of miracle drugs. These ads are now appearing on television stations in Tallahassee and seven other regions of the country. They have not been aired in Shaw's district.

There is no effort to deceive viewers about the source of the Pfizer ads; they all carry the company logo. But Nehl Horton, a Pfizer spokesman, declined to say how much is being spent.

Virtually all of the commercials funded by the drug industry were produced by one consulting firm, National Media Inc. of Alexandria, Va., a favorite among conservatives. Shaw also hired National Media to make his own campaign ads.

Two years ago, Democrats accused National Media of coordinating the advertising for GOP presidential nominee George W. Bush with that of another health industry front group, Citizens for Better Medicare, whose ads also supported Bush. The firm never responded to the accusation.

In Nebraska, National Media was recently fired by Republican Rep. Lee Terry because the firm used a clip from a Terry commercial in an ad paid for by Pfizer.

Larry Nobel, former FEC general counsel, notes that interest groups are permitted to produce independent advertising for candidates, but the law strictly prohibits any contact between the group and the candidate. When both the interest group and the candidate hire the same media consultant, he said, "it raises the issue of whether they are coordinating their activities through the consultant."

The Canadian connection

Shaw's challenger, Roberts, says she got her most valuable election year advice from a 92-year-old man who lives in an assisted living facility in nearby Boca Raton.

When Roberts visited the facility this year, the Palm Beach County commissioner was having trouble competing with what she estimates is $1.3-million in pro-Shaw television advertising and mailings by USA and 60 Plus.

Then the man in Boca Raton told her how he was getting deep discounts on his medicines by ordering them from Canada. He explained that prices on American-made drugs were 30 to 70 percent lower in Canada because of price controls.

That was the inspiration for 1-866-RX-CAROL.

"Hi, I'm Carol Roberts," she says on the hotline's recorded message. "Every day as I campaign for Congress, people complain about the outrageously high cost of prescription drugs. I share their outrage. We have a system that keeps drug prices high." She closes by telling callers who want more information to leave their name and telephone number.

Roberts, who decided to run for Congress after playing a high profile role in the Florida election recount two years ago, thinks her strategy of attacking Shaw on this issue is beginning to work.

She notes he has recently started airing television commercials counterattacking her, accusing her of favoring tax increases. He wouldn't be on the attack, she reasons, if he were as certain of winning the election as he claims to be.

The Democratic challenger thinks voters in the district are especially sensitive to the issue of rising drug prices since two HMOs operating in the area announced they would not offer drug coverage to Medicare patients after Jan. 1.

Evelyn and Herb Jahnke, both in their early 80s, attended a joint appearance by Shaw and Roberts last week. They are among the thousands of local people who will lose their drug coverage because of the HMO decision. When the audience was asked to identify the most important issue in the election, Evelyn raised her hand, jumped up and shouted, "Prescription drugs!"

Even the area's most wealthy voters share Jahnke's concern about drug costs, Roberts said. She said a woman who recently donated $3-million to have a local building named in her honor had also called the hotline.

"Nobody likes to get ripped off," Roberts explained.

Despite Roberts' efforts to focus on the issue, however, many seniors who attended the candidate forum were unaware that Shaw had the support of the drug industry. And Shaw easily brushed aside Roberts' assertion that a House-passed, Republican bill to create a Medicare drug benefit, while helping the poor, would not provide adequate coverage for middle-class recipients.

"What you heard is just plain not true," Shaw replied.

Roberts' tactics have allowed Shaw to raise doubts among voters that she is serious about solving the problem. "Carol Roberts and some of her stunts have not impressed voters," said White House political director Ken Mehlman.

Still independent

Shaw acknowledges he has received at least $26,500 in contributions from pharmaceutical health industry executives in this election cycle. But he says he has had no contact with the United Seniors Association, 60 Plus or any of the other industry-related groups that are supporting him with advertising and mailings.

"It hasn't affected my voting record," he says.

In the past year, Shaw has voted for the GOP bill to provide a Medicare drug benefit and a measure that would have allowed American pharmacies to import lower-priced, U.S.-made drugs from Canada. The pharmaceutical industry supported the GOP Medicare bill, but opposed the second measure.

He said he also urged Speaker Dennis Hastert to allow the House to vote last month on a bill opposed by PhRMA that would have eliminated some legal obstacles to lower-priced generic drugs. The bill never came to a vote, but Bush recently instructed the Food and Drug Administration to take similar steps that would save consumers an estimated $3-billion a year in drug costs.

Even though Shaw voted to allow U.S. pharmacies to import American-made drugs from Canada, he is critical of Roberts' hotline. He noted it is still illegal for Americans to order drugs from Canada, even if the law is never enforced.

"As a lawmaker," Shaw said, "I'm not going to encourage people to violate the law. That would be like the police advising people to exceed the speed limit."

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