“Sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Not true, says The New York Times. Last week, The Times asked the question: When is it better for companies and their leaders to, well, “shut up?” The answer: Plenty of times – especially on social media channels when it can become a public record that reemerges to haunt you in the court of law. Marc Andreesen, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos routinely trade competitive barbs on their Twitter channels and in the press. But, company leaders must be warned, these online ditties can become serious business. Take the words of former Turing CEO Martin Shkreli, who has filled the Twitterverse with one inflammatory comment after another before recently reminding us “He’s #notacriminal.” The justice system will determine whether or not that’s true, but in the meantime, he’s created a challenging environment for himself by publicly broadcasting his every impulse and incendiary comment for weeks. Undoubtedly on the advice of counsel, Shkreli has started to restrain his commentary for fear of creating more courtroom fodder, but the industry seemingly hasn’t learned from his lesson. At last week’s JP Morgan meeting, one Gilead executive reminded us how far words can carry. Gilead President John Milligan, told an audience that drug pricing is “more of a campaign issue than an actual issue,” the San Francisco Business Times reported. The seemingly tone deaf remark carried far and wide and riled the protesters onsite who carried banners saying “Don’t be greedy Gilead. Treat the NEEDY!”
Our Take: Consider it serious when a communications agency is telling you that sometimes “silence can be golden.” Engaging in industry forum and social media channels can be very good vehicles to reach your stakeholders, but don’t forget the message matters. In the case of Milligan, if you’re going to speak about the most sensitive issue in the industry (pricing), then make sure you carefully couch your comments so as not to hit the proverbial “third rail.” By not acknowledging the outrage, Milligan continues to create new critics of Gilead. And as for Shkreli, the “I am not a crook” line didn’t play well for Nixon and it doesn’t seem to be working four decades later.
DRUGS GIVEN GOVERNMENT FUNDING AT RISK?
Look who’s boss! was the message Capitol Hill sought to telegraph to the pharmaceutical industry last week when 51 members of Congress signed a joint letter calling for the federal government to use “march-in rights” to override drug patents for medicines that were developed using federal research funding. Democrats in the House and Senate went on record asking the Secretary of Health and Human Services and Director of the National institutes of Health to apply the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980. The Act states the government can require a patent be licensed out to “alleviate health and safety needs which are not being reasonably satisfied” or when the benefits of a drug are not available on “reasonable terms.” Drug prices – especially specialty drugs – argued the signers, are “unreasonable.” HHS has never formalized guidelines under the Act and now Democratic Congress members are urging the agency to do so. If acted upon, the approach would circumvent the need for new lawmaking.
Our Take: With Congress divided on nearly everything, it is no surprise to see pols seeking creative paths in existing laws. While it is unlikely that HHS and NIH will take action at this time, the makers of specialty and precision medicines should consider this letter yet another warning shot. The letter signers underscored the claim that specialty meds comprise 2% of prescriptions, but 30% of the costs to government payers. Makers of precision and specialty meds must find a way to better demonstrate how they reduce poor health outcomes and long-term system costs – or they will remain at risk. This is particularly true as advocacy groups seek new approaches in states like California and Ohio to regulate pricing and access using ballot initiatives.