Revealed: A UK Drugs Giant Is Campaigning Against US Health Reform

Campaigners are warning that the US serves as a warning of how lobbyists could try to undermine the NHS.
13 May 2020, 7:45am
Background: Derek Croucher / Alamy Stock Photo

A top British drug firm is a key backer of a campaign against more public healthcare in the USA, VICE can reveal.

UK pharma-giant GlaxoSmithKline is among the corporations backing a campaign that continues to argue against health reform, even as coronavirus exposes the limitations of America's private insurance-based health system.

Campaigners told VICE that drug firms fighting against public healthcare in the US should ring alarm bells, as the NHS itself could come under pressure from corporate lobbying.

UK-based GlaxoSmithKline is a big player in the US pharmaceutical market. It is a leading member of US drug industry lobby group PhRMA – the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. GlaxoSmithKline’s Chief Executive Emma Walmsley is a director of PhRMA, reflecting their large US presence.

In turn, PhRMA is part of The Partnership for America's Healthcare Future, a campaign against US healthcare reform, funded by private health and drug companies.

The GlaxoSmithKline-backed campaign ran millions of dollars of advertisements throughout the Primary contest to select the Democrat presidential candidate, aimed at discrediting Bernie Sanders' plan for NHS-style healthcare in the US.

A typical ad has an actor playing a young mother stroking her young daughter's hair, before saying, "Like every mom, I care a lot about my family's healthcare." As her daughter plays on a swing in the background, she tells viewers, "Government-controlled health insurance systems that politicians are pushing" are "a real threat to our healthcare coverage and yours", because "these government-controlled proposals could double everyone's income taxes" and lead to "worse care".

Americans depend on employer health insurance, or very limited public health services for the poorest, called Medicare and Medicaid. Before he dropped out of the primaries, Bernie Sanders stood on a platform for a comprehensive, NHS-style health package, called "Medicare for All". Joe Biden, the Democrats' 2020 Presidential candidate, proposes a more modest plan to increase US healthcare for the poor, called "The Public Option".

With Sanders withdrawing from the contest for Presidential Candidate, the GlaxoSmithKline-backed campaign has turned their fire on Biden's plan.

The campaign says "The Public Option Is Not A 'Moderate' Alternative to Sanders' plans". One campaign video portrays a doctor in a white coat with a stethoscope around her neck saying that "One-Size-Fits-All Government Healthcare systems", including Biden's "Public Option", could all "double income taxes".

The GlaxoSmithKline-backed campaign also argues that the coronavirus crisis does not show weaknesses in America’s largely private healthcare, despite the country being ill prepared and uniquely vulnerable to the virus.

The campaign says the US must "Preserve Control" – meaning stop government-led healthcare – because "the private market is empowering patients to choose where and how they receive care – from tele-health to drive-up clinics, to hospitals and more" to deal with coronavirus. The campaign says the US should "preserve patients' choice and control" – meaning private healthcare – in response to coronavirus.

Calls for NHS-style reforms in the US are popular: polling shows that 69 percent of Americans – including 46 percent of Republican voters – support Bernie Sanders' "Medicare for All" plan, even after Sanders was knocked out of the Presidential race.

But private health firms would rather not face competition from an NHS-style public healthcare system. Reformers say the reason big pharma companies also back the campaign against better public healthcare is because national health systems will push down ever-rising drug prices, hitting their profits.

Big pharma companies like GlaxoSmithKline joining a corporate battle against public healthcare in the USA has ramifications for the UK. As the country tries to sign new trade deals post-Brexit, the big pharma lobby wants to use those deals to weaken the NHS and its power to hold down drug prices.

Since 1957, the NHS has negotiated a five-yearly price agreement with the drug industry to keep prices reasonable, called the Pharmaceutical Price Regulation Scheme (PPRS). Since 1999, new drugs have had to be approved for NHS use by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), which also keeps costs lower.

Since Brexit, drug multinationals have been pushing the US government to use trade policy to weaken the NHS in any future trade deal – and leaked papers from UK-US trade reports made clear that the US government is taking up that call.

Nick Dearden, head of campaign group Global Justice Now – which helped to uncover the leaked US-UK trade documents – said, "The US government has been in the pocket of big pharma for years. This industry spends a fortune on lobbying and has worked tirelessly to defeat public healthcare proposals in the US and to secure guarantees in trade deals which extend its monopoly power over medicines, allowing these corporations to charge whatever the market will bear for drugs desperately needed to save lives."

He added, "This is a huge issue for us when it comes to doing a trade deal with the US, because we know they will be pushing to remove the ability of the NHS to negotiate reasonable prices on medicines." With rising drug prices, this could "lead to an existential crisis for the NHS".

VICE asked GlaxoSmithKline if they supported the campaign against increased US public healthcare because it might push down drug prices. We also asked if their antipathy to NHS-style reforms in the US meant they were also not keen on the NHS itself, for drug price reasons.

A GlaxoSmithKline spokesperson responded: "Each country in which we operate is different and we have a track record of supporting and working with healthcare systems around the world – public and private – to provide patients with access to new, innovative medicines and vaccines in a sustainable way."

The spokesperson added: "In relation to the United States, we are committed to working with the US Administration to develop solutions that help lower patients' out-of-pocket costs but do not jeopardise patient safety or access. Over the last five years, the average net price for our products in the US has fallen by 4 percent per year."

British-Swedish drug giant AstraZeneca is also involved in the US campaign against increased public healthcare. Like GlaxoSmithKline, it is a member of PhRMA, and the company's Chief Executive Pascal Soriot also sits on the board. AstraZeneca did not respond to inquiries.

In March, VICE revealed that Universal Health Services, a major US health firm with hundreds of millions of pounds of NHS contracts in the UK, is also backing the campaign against NHS-style health reforms in the US.