Push to give Medicare more power on drug prices plays out on airwaves

Advertising around the issue of prescription drug prices has been heating up over the past year.
18 February 2022
Medicare drug prices and advertising
Geoff Pereira

Head of Content & Insights, Kantar CMAG, U.S.

Get in touch

After Democrats took Congress and The White House in the aftermath of the 2020 elections, hope sprung eternal that a law could be passed that would allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices with pharmaceutical companies in order to drive down costs. Political action committees and other advocacy groups on both sides of the issue have been burning up the airwaves the last 13 months attempting to influence both voters and legislators that this is the right course of action.

First and foremost among these groups is AARP. Since the beginning of 2021, they’ve spent $4.4 million on spots in various markets across the country with a particular focus on National Cable, Washington, DC, Phoenix and Tucson- those latter two markets being targeted in an attempt to persuade Senator Kyrsten Sinema. Building Back Together spent $4 million in this same time period. Nearly 33% of that was spent supporting the Democrat in the GA-07 House race. Democrat Senate PAC Majority Forward aired spots urging Medicare drug price negotiation in the AZ, NH and NV Senate races to the tune of $1.4 million.

Future Forward USA Action spent $1.3 million on several issue advocacy spots as well as in House races in GA, IA, NH, NV & PA. Patients for Affordable Drugs Now rounded out the top 5 in terms of spending on this issue since Jan. 2021 with a $1.2 million ad campaign. Like AARP, this group concentrated nearly 25% of their whole ad buy in the Phoenix market, targeting a reticent Senator Sinema.

In opposing the initiative to allow Medicare to negotiate prescription drug costs there were five major sponsors. American Action Network has put out $4.2 million in advertising on House races across the country. AARP’s right-leaning bête noire, 60 Plus Association, slotted into the 2nd position on this list with $2.6 million in spending (with 50% of that figure airing in the Washington DC market). The pharma sector’s trade association, PhRMA, came in third with an ad spend of $2.4 million centering primarily on National Cable and National Network buys.

The Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease bought only National Cable, Washington, DC and NYC during the last 13 months but still mounted a $1.8 million ad campaign while the Common Sense Leadership Fund released ads in the AZ, GA and NH Senate races at a total cost of $1.2 million. 

All in, these opposing groups are evenly matched in terms of ad firepower: the side advocating for Medicare RX drug negotiation spent $16 million on 26,257 ad airings while the side opposing this initiative spent $17.5 million on 22,708 ad airings. In the initial stages of this ad war, the pro negotiation side enjoyed an early advantage in ad activity that was matched by their opponents as summer turned into fall and then winter. This dynamic flipped as groups backing RX drug price negotiation went completely dark from 12/29 - 1/4 and then again from 1/24 – 1/30. 

This is unsurprising given that on December 19th West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin released a statement in which he indicated that he could not vote for the “Build Back Better” infrastructure package that was currently before the Senate. Though only a component of that legislation, that development dealt a serious blow to those who wished to allow Medicare RX drug negotiation. Proponents of this idea have been pursuing this goal since 2003, when the prescription drug benefit was added to Medicare in passing the Medicare Modernization Act.

The Biden administration has pivoted since Build Back Better’s defeat and is now hoping to pass its more popular parts in a piecemeal fashion that can get through a divided Congress. The pro negotiation groups appear to believe their issue falls under this category as their assorted PACs and issue advocacy groups have steadily built up their ad presence since the end of January. 

With an embattled President Biden and the potential loss of Congress staring the Democrats in the face for the upcoming midterms, it is unclear whether or not they will expend their limited political capital on such a contentious issue. But it appears that Democratic donors and their media consultants think this is a fight worth having.

Get in touch