Ballot Battle: Issue 2 Galvanizes Both Sides Of Drug Price Debate

Sep 19, 2017

The November election is about 50 days away, with no major statewide candidates this year. That leaves room for both sides of a controversial drug price issue on the ballot to hit the airwaves with millions of dollars in ads. 

Issue 2, known formally as the "Ohio Drug Price Relief Act," may turn out to be the most expensive ballot issue campaign in Ohio history, topping the $64 million casino effort in 2008. The debate over drug prices has spawned a huge ad campaign, and is one of the most contentious issues in recent years.

Saving consumers and the state money

The two people who spoke on the issue are familiar to many political observers in Ohio. Matt Borges, the former chairman of the Ohio Republican Party, represents the group Ohio Taxpayers for Lower Drug Prices.

He said the Issue 2 will do two things.

“Lower people’s drug prices (and) make sure the state is not paying more than what the VA pays," he says.

Long-time Democratic strategist Dale Butland, former chief of staff to Sen. John Glenn, represents the "no" group: Ohioans Against the Deceptive Prescription Ballot Issue.

“The idea that this is going to save much, if any, money is preposterous,” Butland insisted.

The “vote yes” side says the state could save $400 million by requiring that Ohio pay no more for drugs than the federal Department of Veterans Affairs does.

About 3.7 million Ohioans enrolled in Medicaid and other state programs would be directly affected, and the “vote yes” side says taxpayers will save money directly and through a ripple effect throughout the country and the drug industry.

The “vote no” side says the state already has deals with drug companies, and that forcing the companies into this kind of arrangement would actually have a negative impact, restricting access and driving up prices for other drugs.

A blank check for drug companies?

There’s a line in the long ballot description that’s notable: It would “require state payment of attorney fees and expenses to specific individuals for defense of the law."

Speaking for the “vote no” side, Butland said that’s a blank check to five people on the “vote yes” side, who’ve already filed more than 50 lawsuits nationwide. He maintains it "requires taxpayers to pay their legal fees, to pay their attorneys’ fees and without a cap or limit of any kind on the amount of money Ohioans are on the hook for.”

Borges said that’s a red herring by the drug companies opposing the issue.

“It also says ‘reasonable attorney fees,' and so we’re not talking about some kind of blank check," Borges said. "They want to talk about anything but meaningful reform that will actually bring drug prices down for Ohioans."

Spending big to protect profits

And that’s a big part of the argument Borges makes for the issue. He said that the drug companies supporting the "vote no" side are protecting their profits, and they’ll spend whatever they have to do it.

“If this wouldn’t actually bring prices down in Ohio, which you’re saying it won’t, and it wouldn’t have a ripple effect through the marketplace so people would save money, why would the drug companies have spent $126 million to defeat this issue in California?" Borges argues. "Why are the drug companies spending $2 million a week to defeat this measure in Ohio?”

Butland said the money doesn’t sway some who are against the issue, which is similar to one rejected in California last year.

“Every major newspaper editorialized against it," Butland says. "So when Matt says, ‘Oh, it only went down because the drug companies spent all this money.’ Did the drug companies buy all the editorial boards, too, Matt?"

Unclear if state retirees would benefit

There is a question of whether the 468,000 people in the state’s retirement systems would be covered by Issue 2. Borges says yes, but Butland and others have said no.

That’s likely to be litigated if Issue 2 passes. Some $24 million has been spent on ads so far – with the “vote no” side spending five times more than the “vote yes” group. And campaign filings at the end of June show nearly $16 million has come into the “vote no” side from the drug industry.

Meanwhile, $3.6 million has come to the “vote yes” side from the AIDS Foundation, which is run by the chief backer of Issue 2.