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    Drug labs seed citizen groups

    Behind the grass-roots groups lobbying for and against generic drug substitutions are big-name corporate donors.

    By TIM NICKENS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 5, 2001


    TALLAHASSEE -- Ernest Wm. Bach wears several hats.

    As a member of the Silver Haired Legislature, a senior citizens organization, the white-haired Bach is pushing to require pharmacists to substitute cheaper generic drugs for four name-brand drugs.

    "Money talks," Bach said in a memo to legislators, urging defeat of a provision sought by drug giant Du Pont, "but here and now in Florida, let patients save it, and live healthier."

    As head of the innocuously named Florida Action Coalition Team, the onetime Largo city commissioner is also pushing for more generics.

    But it turns out Bach's coalition is not so independent.

    The group received $5,000 last year from Barr Laboratories -- the manufacturer of a generic alternative to the blood thinner Coumadin, made by Du Pont.

    And Bach's group has received nearly $70,000 from a small Washington-area public relations firm, the Krupa Cos., whose Web site says it specializes in health care issues.

    The battle over generic drugs illustrates the emergence of interest groups in the state Capitol with fuzzy memberships and good-government names. They seemingly provide legislators with grass-roots support for their proposals and appear independent, but they often receive money from powerful business interests.

    For the third straight year, lobbyists for Barr Labs are trying to persuade lawmakers to change state law to open up the market for Barr's generic blood thinner at Du Pont's expense.

    Now, pharmacists cannot automatically substitute Barr Labs' generic Warfarin when a prescription is written by a doctor for Coumadin. The bill would remove Warfarin and three other drugs from the state's "negative formulary" to allow for the automatic substitution of a generic alternative. Doctors still could prevent the substitution of a generic by writing "medically necessary" on the prescription.

    The past two years, then-House Speaker John Thrasher blocked the proposal. The legislation was opposed by the Florida Medical Association, and Thrasher was the FMA's former general counsel.

    This year, the bill is a priority of the House leadership, including Majority Leader Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey. Bach, a 64-year-old retiree, has urged Fasano on in e-mails and has appeared at committee meetings as head of the Florida Action Coalition Team. He says its members include more than 60 groups, including homeowners associations throughout the state.

    On Wednesday, Fasano helped defeat the amendment Bach and Barr Labs opposed. Outside the House chamber were Bach's counterparts, members of the Florida Coalition for Patient Safety who oppose the legislation.

    Du Pont contributes money to the Florida Coalition for Patient Safety, whose supporters include the FMA and the Pasco and Hillsborough medical societies.

    The Florida Coalition for Patient Safety, like other special interest groups claiming to represent grass-roots Floridians, is organized so that it does not have to publicly disclose how it raises and spends money.

    But Bach's Florida Action Coalition Team is a political action committee. It has to report its contributions and expenditures.

    Bach's group also received more than $20,000 from AT&T after advocating a cut in access fees that AT&T and other long-distance companies pay local telephone companies. And Bach said the group has received $50,000 from oil companies and retailers that want legislation allowing the sale of gasoline at below cost.

    "We don't feel less independent," Bach said.

    He said he turned down far more money from the sugar industry and from high-speed rail supporters who wanted his group to support their constitutional amendments.

    As for the money he got from the Washington public relations group, Bach first said the Krupa money was not tied to the generic-drug legislation, then acknowledged Krupa was probably passing along money to him from its clients. Bach said Krupa introduced him to Barr Laboratories as the fight heated up in Florida.

    Krupa officials did not return telephone calls. A lobbyist for Barr Laboratories said he did not believe the money that Krupa paid Bach's group came from Barr.

    - Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

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