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How Public Relations Can Lower Prescription Drug Costs

By Tom Corsillo

Empowering Independent Pharmacies and Patient Advocates Against PBMs 

Everyone knows prescription drug prices are out of control. But with some exceptions – including independent pharmacists, patient advocacy organizations, and well-informed elected officials – few understand why. 

For the average person, it’s easy to point the finger at pharmaceutical manufacturers and insurance companies. They’re obvious and convenient scapegoats – and they’re not without blame. But as those closest to the issue know all too well, the biggest problem with prescription drugs is a shadowy group of powerful middlemen known as pharmacy benefit managers, or PBMs. 

If you’ve never heard of a PBM, here’s a good place to get up to speed. If you have, you know what an uphill battle it is trying to fight back. The ‘Big 3’ – CVS Caremark, Express Scripts, and Optum Rx – are Fortune 15 corporations with deep pockets that fund massive advertising campaigns and an army of high-powered lobbyists.  

That’s where public relations comes in. By leveraging strategic communication, advocacy, and stakeholder engagement, an effective public relations program can level the playing field, bringing to light the issues independent pharmacies face and mobilizing public and legislative support for reforms. 

Public Relations as An Education Tool 

The people who are closest to and best understand an issue often are poorly suited to explain it to the masses. That’s especially true of complex issues like prescription drug pricing. And pharmacists understand the byzantine prescription drug distribution system better than anyone. But put a pharmacist in front of a lay person, and they inevitably start talking about AWP and NADAC and DIR fees, and 30 seconds later, the other person’s head is spinning.  

A good public relations consultant can take a complex topic and distill it into a simple, compelling narrative that anyone can understand. This is especially important when it comes to fighting PBMs, who derive much of their power from the fact that people either don’t know they exist or don’t understand what they do.  

And we have a wide range of tools at our disposal to ensure that narrative is reaching our audience wherever they get their information – from news coverage to engaging video content to social media and beyond.  

Public Relations as An Advocacy Tool 

Education is the foundation needed to affect change, but advocacy is what gets it done. When it comes to enacting public policy that addresses challenges like the ones PBMs create, lobbying and public relations are what get it done.  

PBMs spend tens of millions of dollars a year on an army of lobbyists who work tirelessly to protect their bottom lines, and pharmacists have to fight fire with fire, employing government relations consultants to convey their needs and concerns directly to lawmakers.  

But lobbying must be accompanied by public relations. Lawmakers won’t listen to pharmacists alone. And a good PR campaign will mobilize the kind of broad coalition of stakeholders lawmakers can’t ignore – health care providers, patients and patient advocates, labor and civic leaders, and taxpayers – to advocate forcefully for policy change.  

When the New York City Pharmacist Society approached us in 2018 to help them fight back, Marino conceived the FixRx campaign with that goal in mind. That campaign – which you can read about here – won enactment of a series of laws known as the Pharmacy Rescue Package, which Politico called the nation’s toughest crackdown on PBMs.  

Fight Back with Public Relations 

Taking on PBMs is like playing a game of whack-a-mole. Every time government takes steps to rein them in, PBMs come up with a new way to screw over patients, taxpayers, and independent pharmacies. That’s why it’s so important that pharmacy associations and patient advocacy groups fight back – and enlist the support of public relations and lobbyists who understand these complex issues and have taken on PBMs and won. 

 If you’re ready to fight back, get in touch and let’s discuss what we can do for you.  

Tom is a senior vice president at Marino, a full-service strategic communications agency with offices in New York City, Los Angeles and Miami. He oversees the agency's public affairs practice which is advancing major economic development and public policy initiatives across the tri-state area.

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