The lobbyists in the Trump woodpile, or how the President dumped drug price reforms to please Joe Grogan and Pharma

Who is Joe Grogan? Hint: he is not the famous comedian – Joe Rogan.

Here’s the graph of his resume – revolving from industry to government and now the White House – enough to make your head spin from such swinging roles.

Is it possible for any lobbyist from Gilead Sciences to be fair and objective in determining our drug policy? Most of us believe you can put lipstick on a pig, but the beast will still revert to acting and thinking like a pig, and my instinct says Grogan is just a Revlon-enhanced pawn of Pharma’s pen of paid omnivores.

Joe Grogan (left) with Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó

President Donald Trump has done nothing to fulfill his campaign promise of lowering drug prices, and many attribute that failure to advice from Grogan.

The latest Trump stumble is appointing Grogan to the Coronavirus (Covid-19) Task Force. The result is a fox in an already bureaucratic hen house, where members are focused on ultra safety, avoiding failure and – one wonders also – maximizing drug company profits.

For example, why is the task force, pushed by an aggressive Grogan, playing down the use of hydroxicholiquine to treat Covid-19, while seemingly seeking expensive alternatives.

The reason might be that this drug, used around the world and in the United States successfully, is a cheap generic with no room to overcharge and enrich the callous investor class.

Enter, stage right: remdesivir!

In early March, Gilead sought and was subsequently granted an orphan drug designation (from the FDA) for the remdesivir as a potential treatment for COVID-19. Orphan drug designation is granted by the FDA in situations where the disease affects fewer than 200,000 patients in the United States, according to a Gilead press release.

Orphan drug means you can exclude use of generic equivalents for seven years and have a monopoly to fix its cost.

Gilead is not above charging astronomical prices if it gets permission. Two examples: Harvoni, a blockbuster Hepatitis C drug, costs $31,500 and Gilead’s Sovaldi, costs $28,000 – both per month!

Grogan, top health advisor to Trump, could have stopped the FDA giveaway to Gilead, or at least interrupted the President’s endless briefings to explain that it was obvious remdesivir was not orphan, and ultimately could be used on billions of patients, totally disqualifying it for a price-fixing monopoly.

Senator Bernie Sanders – who has finally stopped campaigning – heard about the FDA rollover to Gilead, and loudly ripped the agency and the drug company for their arrogant attempt to enrich Grogan’s former employer.

Gilead quickly relented and asked to withdraw the fake orphan tag in this press release:

Gilead has submitted a request to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to rescind the orphan drug designation it was granted for the investigational antiviral remdesivir for the treatment of COVID-19 and is waiving all benefits that accompany the designation. Gilead is confident that it can maintain an expedited timeline in seeking regulatory review of remdesivir, without the orphan drug designation. Recent engagement with regulatory agencies has demonstrated that submissions and review relating to remdesivir for the treatment of COVID-19 are being expedited.

In its report on the 53 patients studied for use of remdesivir, Gilead revealed these adverse effects:

A total of 32 patients (60%) reported adverse events during follow-up. The most common adverse events were increased hepatic enzymes, diarrhea, rash, renal impairment, and hypo-tension. In general, adverse events were more common in patients receiving invasive ventilation. A total of 12 patients (23%) had serious adverse events. The most common serious adverse events — multiple-organ-dysfunction syndrome, septic shock, acute kidney injury, and hypo-tension — were reported in patients who were receiving invasive ventilation at baseline.

Four patients (8%) discontinued remdesivir treatment prematurely: one because of worsening of preexisting renal failure, one because of multiple organ failure, and two because of elevated aminotransferases, including one patient with a maculopapular rash.

Have government officials been playing down one drug – hydroxicholiquine – in favor of another one, not because of highest efficacy and safety, but because one will enrich Big Pharma and the other won’t.

Grogan’s graduation from Gilead to the White House violated Trump’s campaign-trail pledge to “drain the swamp” of D.C. corruption. He promised his administration would refrain from hiring lobbyists.

In 2017 White House budget director and ex-congressman Mick Mulvaney ignored the swamp-draining pledge and hired Grogan, who was then Gilead’s head of federal affairs. In the long run lobbyists took dozens of jobs in the Trump administration.

To watchers of Mulvaney it was no surprise he liked paid petitioners.

In April 2018, Mulvaney told a room of banking industry executives and lobbyists that as a U. S. Representative, he refused to take meetings with lobbyists unless they contributed to his political campaigns:

If you are a lobbyist who never gave us money, I did not talk to you. If you are a lobbyist who gave us money, I might talk to you.

He was later named acting Chief of White House Staff.

After his hiring, Mulvaney protege Grogan soon seemed to control the administration’s drug pricing efforts, leading meetings of the Drug Pricing and Innovation Working Group.

Grogan invited Robert Shapiro, a member of a Gilead advisory board, to give a presentation to one meeting. The group never issued formal recommendations, but Business Insider said these were some of the highlights of sessions:

  • The group wants to extend overseas patents, which would give drug makers longer periods of exclusivity before generic drugs come to the market.
  • It also wants … changes to the regulatory system and reimbursements for medications.
  • Members have chatted about value-based pricing, a concept in which prescriptions are paid for based on how well they work, rather than on a per-pill basis.
  • The group considered setting up Treasury bonds to pay for expensive treatments that have led to only the sickest patients receiving treatment because of the high cost in recent years.
  • Other documents from the working group discuss being more lenient on clinical trials, which the FDA uses the data from to vet experimental drugs.

Some text in the working group’s documents was taken directly from papers written by the lobby group Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.

In a few cases in recent years Grogan has been almost favorable to consumers, but his past adhesion to the drug industry, and continued favoritism, should disqualify him as an honest broker.

Meanwhile, Mulvaney has just been exiled to Northern Ireland, where blarney is more acceptable, Grogan remains in power, and Big Pharma awaits rewards.

Tulsi Gabbard is the co-sponsor of a terrific Social Security bill also endorsed by Mark Meadows – Trump’s new Chief of Staff

Talk about strange bill-fellows!

Mark Meadows

HR 860 (Social Security 2100 Act) has gained the endorsement of former Republican Congressman Mark Meadows. A founder of the House Freedom Caucus in 2015, Meadows was just named White House Chief of Staff by President Donald Trump.

This same House bill to modernize Social Security is co-sponsored by Democrat Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard. She has hundreds of thousands of contributors in her active quest for the Democrat Party’s nomination for President in the November general election.

Unfortunately, the bill is held up in the House Ways and Means, House Education and Labor, and House Energy and Commerce committees.

Despite hundreds of supporters for passage of the bill, the Speaker of the House has not called for a vote in more than a year.

HR 860 establishes the Social Security Trust Fund to replace the Federal Old-Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund and the Federal Disability Insurance Trust Fund.

  • It would provide an immediate increase for beneficiaries equal to 2% of the average benefit
  • HR 860 would set the minimum benefit at 25% above the poverty line
  • The law would change the way the annual cost-of-living adjustment is calculated to include medical and other expenses significant for seniors..
  • The plan raises the limits on non-Social Security income before benefits begin to be taxed. The new caps would go to $50,000 for individuals and $100,000 for couples, up from the current (1986 original) $25,000 and $32,000. This includes mandated RMDs, which cause double taxation for many.
Tulsi Gabbard

To pay for those changes to sustain the system through the end of the 21st century, the plan would also apply payroll taxes to wages more than $400,000, and gradually increase the contribution rate for both workers and employers to 7.4% from 6.2% of wages between 2020 and 2043.

This bill is backed by groups including the AFL-CIO, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare and Social Security Works.

Rep. John Larson, D-Conn is spearheading the effort to pass this real reform. He currently has 202 members of the House ready to vote for it. He has also talked to Ivanka Trump and others in the White House and hopes for bipartisan support.

One needed area of support to get the bill passed will be the Senate, as well as the president. There are indications that the administration is at least considering the issue, Larson said.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, has also met with the bill’s supporters several times and she likes the approach.

But the big surprise is the  support for the measure by Conservative leader Mark Meadows.

The plot thickens when you realize Meadows replaced Mick Mulvaney as Chief of Staff.

Mulvaney has publicly pushed for radical benefit cuts to Social Security and Medicare as recently as two weeks ago. He was a co-founder of Freedom Works with Meadows, and the two began with the same negative views on so-called “entitlements”, but now find themselves on opposite sides.

When Trump exiled Mulvaney to Northern Ireland last week and brought in Meadows it provided a great relief to advocates for seniors.

After hearing from his mother last year on how crucial Social Security benefits and Medicare are to her budget, Meadows changed his mind in October, last year, and said he plans to work with Larson to come up with a Social Security fix.

“It is a bipartisan issue,” Meadows said in an interview

The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM) is encouraging its members to raise the issue at debates and town halls. Passing HR 860 has been a taboo subject for media reporters so far this primary season.

Meanwhile, Mulvaney’s enthusiasm to take away people’s earned benefits mirrors the motives of Mitch McConnell, who has called for Social Security and Medicare to be “adjusted” (destroyed).  However, the Senate Majority Leader has met his match with Meadows, who will wield significant power as WH Chief of Staff, dealing not only with Trump, but also the Senate and House.

Why are so many in Congress, as well as the last five Presidents, so anxious to cut senior benefits by raising the retirement age, reducing Cost of Living Adjustments, or privatizing the insurance program? Reagan and Obama used commissions to urge reductions in benefits, while Trump, Clinton and the Bush duo sought cuts in their proposed budgets.

Nancy Altman, President of Social Security Works (SSW) explained “the private sector is incapable of providing the wage and health insurance that Social Security and Medicare provide as efficiently, universally, securely or effectively as the federal government.”

Insurance works best when the greatest numbers of people are covered. The only entity that can require that everyone is covered and pays premiums as soon as they start working is the federal government. That is one of the reasons both Social Security and Medicare work so well.

And that is why Mulvaney, McConnell, and other opponents of these programs want to end them. These programs put the lie to their ideological zealotry, which insists that the private sector is always better than government.

Altman said the new crusade against Social Security uses words like “reform” and opponents pretend to like the program.

Mulvaney, McConnell, and other opponents hide their straightforward ideological opposition. Rather, these opponents subversively seek to undermine confidence in Social Security’s and Medicare’s future by asserting that both programs are not affordable.

Worse, in their efforts to end Social Security and Medicare, they seek to turn Americans against each other. They tell us that seniors are taking from children, that people with disabilities are taking from seniors.

The public should cheer now that Mulvaney has been exiled to the Green Island. When explaining to a conference that he had plans for Social Security after the 2020 election, Mulvaney predicted:

In the long term you’ll have to make more major changes. The president has asked me to fix the easy stuff first.

In defending HR 860 and other bills to improve Social Security, Altman was adamant:

These opponents will not give up. And neither must we. Expanding, not cutting, our Social Security and Medicare is profoundly wise policy and is overwhelmingly popular.

But it will only become a reality if we keep our voices loud, reminding our political leaders that it’s voters, not donors, to whom they must account next election day.

Koch.

It came to pass on the 23d day of the 9th month in the beginning of the 20th Century that a troubling cloud appeared atop Wichita, Kansas. In the fields below, ground and trees trembled at the first cries of a certain infant arrived, a child of dark forces, who would bring misery to so many for so long. And his name was Fred Koch.

All manner of riches would come with ease, commanded perhaps by unstoppable evil, but neither possessions nor power would end the pain for others caused.

In the 11th month of 1967 Fred’s living presence left, but things concocted ended not. Soon, a son would stir the infamy his father brewed – bringing forth even more sorrow across the land.

This boy was David, and with older brother Charles, they pledged great fortunes to crush the public weal. Roads, bridges, schools, prisons, even water and power to light and heat, were touched by a Koch crusade.

Last week, on Friday his family and fanatic fans mourned David’s passing. Meanwhile, millions of victims went on as usual, struggling for food, health, ever wishing for a fairer share of America’s bounty.

– Anonymous

All of the fawning obituaries and all the memorial plaudits will not put David Koch’s reputation back together again. It was lost at birth if you believe in the “evil seed”, and nothing he did for the rest of his life could counter the universal harm he promoted.

I first encountered the effects of the Koch philosophy in the late 60s, when one of Fred Koch’s followers presented me with a copy of The Blue Book, a pithy bible of the John Birch Society. At the time I was editor of The Recorder newspaper in Conshohocken, PA, and Fred Koch was one of the founders of the Birch organization.

Ayn Rand

After reading The Blue Book, I saw a corruption of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism philosophy. Her novels on self-determination emphasized individual freedom of thought and cognitive evaluation. She deplored how fruits of inventors were destroyed or stolen by second-rate “experts” and corporate chicanery.

There is someone named after Ayn Rand in the Senate today – Rand Paul – who fights proposals to increase our minimum wage, seeks to privatize all things short of the air we breathe, and suggests everything should be legal unless it physically harms someone else. He is a corporate tool – no regulation, no anti-trust, no consumer protection.

Conshohocken had once produced 500,000 tons of steel per year and was also home to the national brand – Lee Tires. As companies closed, the town grew poorer, jobs were lost, boarding houses replaced elegant homes, and at least one new crime seemed to be reported every day in a borough with only 8,000 citizens.

Urban Renewal, a federal program that paid to purchase land, clear acres and grant the property to a developer, was the only salvation possible. Some $28 million was promised, and nearly everyone in town was excited with hope of new homes, businesses and roads.

A few folks hated the idea. Long letters about Communism and federal government takeover of the town were sent to me for publication. Angry residents wandered into the newspaper’s office, claiming they represented the opposition to renewal.

It was insane, made no sense, until one of the leaders handed me a copy of The Blue Book and told me to read it and I would change my mind.

I didn’t.

Fred Koch’s Birch Society was the source of today’s Tea Party and Libertarian movement.

To achieve their privatization goals the Kochs funded dozens of front groups, and even spent some $400 million to elect favored candidates in 2018.

What are the ultimate goals of the John Birch Society/Libertarians:

  • No minimum wage
  • No public schools
  • No public prisons
  • No U.S. Department of Education
  • No Environmental Protection Agency
  • No public highways
  • No public police departments
  • No public fire departments
  • No union movement or right to strike
  • No unemployment compensation
  • No workman’s compensation
  • No Food  Stamps
  • No Medicaid
  • No Medicare
  • No public hospitals
  • No public mental institutions
  • No Federal Reserve System
  • No income tax
  • No tariffs
  • No Social Security

In every case benefits now free to the public would be taken by investors to make profits.

For example, only charter schools would remain after public schools deteriorated from politicians deliberately cutting funding.

All highways would be toll roads. Annual dues would be required for fire or police protection.

Our seniors would die quickly without Social Security, leaving the only alternative: Wall Street pension plans. Emergency rooms would collapse from the influx of the poor and seniors without Medicaid or Medicare.

What do the pure Libertarians, like the Kochs, think are good ideas:

  • No laws against gambling or prostitution
  • No penalty for drug use of any kind
  • Unlimited immigration with no borders
  • Dividing public by race and sexual persuasion
  • Earned Income Tax Credits to subsidize business
  • More military funding
  • Sales taxes
  • Ending deficit spending

After a long battle Conshohocken won the urban renewal battle and is replete with high-rise hotels, public parking garages, two large fire departments, and a structure called Marshall Lee Towers.

When all the objections were cleared, the borough’s leaders discovered that the major Birch Society opposition was to the public housing required by the dislocation of residents in the renewal zone.

The critics wanted as few of these homes as possible, citing the “danger” of outsiders moving into town. My opinion at the time was that they meant Black families from Norristown or Philadelphia, but this was never proven.

Finally, someone proposed that part of the renewal program would be housing for the poor elderly, a towering structure on the main drag just for senior citizens. One stipulation was that the waiting list place borough residents on top, county residents next, and others at the end.

There wasn’t very much need for restrictions. The Towers have always been filled only by Conshohocken residents, the demand being so great.

Following the renewal battle I noticed that many of the opponents had left town. They had rented apartments nearby to fight renewal, and now they were off to deprive another community of so-called “government welfare.”

David Koch was about 30 at the time, and Fred had died in 1967.

Mick Mulvaney

The society lives on without much publicity, but it has prominent advocates:

Former Congressman Ron Paul (R-Texas), offered the 2008 keynote speech at the John Birch Society 50th anniversary, and Donald Trump’s current Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney was the speaker at the John Birch Society’s National Council dinner shortly before joining the President’s administration.

Other members over the years included: Roy Cohn, H. L. Hunt, Adolphe Menjou, Roger Milliken, Archibald Roosevelt, John Wayne and Robert W. Welch Jr.