Just two weeks into his new job as vice president of communications for the largest group representing the health insurance industry, Speaker John Boehner's recently decamped press secretary Brendan Buck is helping to lead a barrage of attacks on the pharmaceutical industry.
In press release after press release, email after email, Buck and his new staff have dished out criticism — primarily on the topic of prescription-drug pricing — on behalf of his new employer, America's Health Insurance Plans, which represents thousands of insurers. Buck officially joined AHIP on May 14.
But in a twist, the man Buck followed as spokesman for the health insurance group, Robert Zirkelback, is now a mouthpiece for the drug companies that are being attacked by his former employer. Zirkelback left AHIP in April to become senior vice president of communications for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, and started work there on May 5.
The result has been quite a feud, with the two as opposing generals in a war of words over the cost of prescription drugs.
Good-government watchdogs, such as Craig Holman, senior legislative director for Public Citizen, call this another illustration of the revolving-door syndrome of Washington politics and lobbying.
Holman says the cross-pollination and relationships among Capitol Hill, K Street, and business interests are nurtured for short-term and longer-term mutual benefits. And consistency in allegiances can be fleeting.
In the drug-pricing fight, some are arguing that manufacturers need to balance their profits with the public good. They fear that the escalating prices for specialty drugs, in particular, are going to impact everyone in the health care system through increased premiums and cost-sharing.
Insurers, meanwhile, are under pressure to rein in rising premiums, and argue that keeping drug costs down is one way to accomplish that goal.
Enter hired guns Buck and Zirkelback.
In his three years working for Boehner, which included a stint as a spokesman for vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, Buck was a prominent voice against the Affordable Care Act, and the main responder for the speaker against the White House generally. As recently as this spring, Buck was still defending the position that the health care law should be repealed and replaced.
But now he's the voice of a lobbying group that has become grudgingly supportive of most of the law — and also tasked with defending or explaining rising premiums or insurance-network shortcomings.
In the past 10 days, Buck has posted and sent out emails with such headlines as "In States, High Price of Specialty Drugs Threaten Access" and "Spotlight Shines Brightly on Exorbitant Prices of Specialty Drugs." Another missive dispatched by Buck's director of communications was entitled " 'Lightning Rod' Drug Sparks 'Fierce Debate' Over RX Prices." That item talked about news coverage (including in National Journal) that suggested the controversy over the high price of the latest Hepatitis C drug is, to many, "a sign of what's to come."
And on Thursday, Buck's staff put out another item containing excerpts of AHIP President and CEO Karen Ignagni discussing how she sees provider consolidation and specialty-drug prices driving "unsustainable health care costs."
Meanwhile, PhRMA has responded with a blog this week by Zirkelback on "The Reality of Prescription-Medicine Costs in Three Charts." The blog argues, among other things, that medicines account for a small and declining share of health care spending costs.
PhRMA also has released a study it commissioned showing that high deductibles and cost-sharing for medicines under the Obamacare exchanges put enrollees at risk and increased costs. And the drug industry released a "Cancer Chart Pack," which includes a section that discusses how "insurance covers a lower share of prescription drug-costs than of other medical services."
On Thursday, both men offered only limited comment on their roles in this fight, saying they'd prefer not be to drawn into the limelight and would prefer the attention be on the issues at hand.
"The focus should be about the issues and not the role of specific individuals," said Zirkelback, who also had a brief stint as press secretary for former Iowa GOP Rep. Jim Nussle.
Buck acknowledged that the fact that he's left Boehner's office for his job at AHIP — and that his predecessor is now a main voice for the drug makers in fending off the insurance group's attacks — "is interesting."
But he added, "I would also say it's not relevant." Asked later for a comment from Ignagni about Zirkelback — who until recently was her top spokesman — switching to the other side in the debate, Buck responded in an email, "You must be joking."