Lawmakers Urged To Break Cash Habit

The Express-Times — Wednesday, September 24, 2003

The Express-Times

TRENTON — A consumer watchdog group called Tuesday for candidates in the November legislative elections to swear off donations from the pharmaceutical industry.

Citing $2 million doled out by drug makers to politicians in the past four years, New Jersey Citizen Action said legislators have stalled legislation that would put cheaper drugs in the hands of the poor. From Our Advertiser

Of the money, most has gone to political action committees from both parties, according to Citizen Action.

With $348,300 collected between 1999 and 2003 from pharmaceutical companies, the Republican State Committee topped the list. The GOP National Elections Committee came in second with $315,000 for the same period, according to a Citizen Action compilation of state records.

According to election finance reports, the Democratic State Committee brought in $262,600 during the 4-year span.

"The bottom line is that New Jersey's elected officials are addicted to drug money and we want them to say no," said Staci Berger, program director for Citizen Action. "Candidates need to stand up and break this habit ... We can't rein the pharmaceutical industry in because they control the Legislature."

Berger said the pledge would be sent Tuesday to all candidates for Senate and Assembly. All 40 seats in the Senate and 80 seats in the Assembly are up for grabs this year.

Some estimates show that state government spends nearly $2 billion to fulfill prescription coverage for low-income citizens and state workers. A growing roster of health care advocates has called for expanding the programs to cast a wider net over New Jersey's economically challenged.

Among their proposals are "preferred drug lists" and permitting the state to buy prescription medications, allowing them to leverage bulk discounts.

Ending the connection between state government and drug manufacturers could prove a tough sell in the state.

Gov. James E. McGreevey is a former pharmaceutical lobbyist for the industry which is a major employer in the Central Jersey area.

"We think that is outrageous and wrong," Berger said. "Not only is the governor connected but so are many legislators."

Sen. Leonard Lance, who has taken $4,500 from the industry since 1999 and whose district is home to the world headquarters of industry-giant Merck & Co. Inc., said he has never witnessed the donations steer public policy. Merck & Co. Inc. was the third highest contributor to candidates during the study's period donating $236,800, according to Citizen Action.

"The pharmaceutical industry is the leading industry in New Jersey. It employs tens of thousands of people," Lance, R-Hunterdon/Warren, said. "No industry should have a check on what is done in the Legislature."

Lance said he will review the pledge circulated by Citizen Action, but has not yet seen it.

Sen. Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, and a handful of Assembly allies have introduced a bill to establish bulk purchasing by the state for all the health plans it administers. Sweeney has not taken money from the industry, according to state election records provided by Citizen Action.

Sweeney, who said he has not personally seen drug makers hijack policy, denied the measure would do any economic harm.

"The realities are that we can't afford prescriptions any more as citizens," he said. "The costs are going through the roof and people are reaching a level of frustration we've never seen."

Calls placed to Merck and Co. Inc. seeking comment were not returned.

According to the study, pharmaceutical cash has become increasingly bipartisan. In 1999, the GOP collected $7 for every $1 dollar accepted by Democrats. By 2003, they were neck-and-neck.

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