Biotech: The Influential Health-Care Lobby No One Talks About

Time's Karen Tumulty and Michael Scherer chronicle the unseen hand of the biotech industry, which looks as if it will come out ahead in the high-stakes battle of health care reform. The industry produces biologics--drugs derived from living matter--and, since biologic drugs are expensive to research, develop, and produce, the industry stands to gain or lose a lot when Congress decides how many years of patent data exclusivity to grant to companies when they develop new ones, before competitors can use the data they have developed to produce generic versions.

As health insurers, hospitals, traditional drug-makers, and doctors have come to dominate talk of the health-care lobbying effort, biotech seems to have been lost in the wash.

The industry's clout has grown with time and technology: in 1998, the leading biotech industry trade group, the Biotechnology Industry Organization (commonly referred to as BIO), spent $1.7 million lobbying members of Congress; last year, it spent $7.6 million, and its spending has grown at a more-or-less linear rate.

Thanks to an amendment by Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA), for whom BIO is her top campaign contributor, the House Energy and Commerce Committee's health care legislation grants 12 years of data exclusivity to developers of new biologic drugs--which is the industry's preferred figure, seven years longer than the five that traditional pharmaceutical developers get.

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But while lobbying, and the millions spent on it, always sounds vaguely skulduggerous, it's a battle between the biologic developers and the generic drug producers, whose Generic Pharmaceutical Association exerts less money and influence (it spent $1.9 million lobbying Congress last year).

As Tumulty and Scherer pose it, the ideological battle is between innovation and competition: incentivizing new miracle cures vs. allowing other people to produce them, thus making them affordable and available.

If the respective size and power of the two lobbying efforts tells us anything, it's the biotech industry that will ultimately win out.