Henry Greenspan

Big Noise in the Mitten State: Part 3—A Big “V” for “The Vioxx Woman”

I had anticipated that this installment about the struggle to rescind Michigan’s absolute drug industry immunity law would be not be a happy one. Almost certainly, those who opposed rescinding would retain control of our State House. And that meant that Speaker Craig DeRoche would continue to be able to block floor votes on any of the several bills to rescind immunity. DeRoche’s veto was the ballgame. He knew that a majority in the House, both Republicans and Democrats, were in favor of rescinding. He also knew that polls consistently showed that at least 70% of Michigan citizens favored rescinding. So there was certainly high water on the other side of the levee, but there seemed no possibility of a serious storm.

For me, the first sign that the weather was otherwise came in a New York Times story of October 28, “Democrats Get Late Donations from Business.” Among other noteworthy items, the Times reported:

For the first nine months of the year, for example, Pfizer’s political action committee had given 67% of contributions to Republican candidates. But October ushered in a sudden change of fortune, according to disclosure reports, and Democrats received 59% of Pfizer contributions.

A “change of fortune,” indeed. Pfizer, along with almost all the large pharmaceutical companies, had been donating to Republicans over Democrats by at least two-to-one since the Gingrich revolution of the mid-90s. It was, in fact, part of the “contract.” If Gingrich and Co. were going to move forward to deep-six the regulatory power of the FDA—which they very nearly did—they expected pharma’s support along the way. Pharma was forthcoming. (Although in the ‘90s, too, a point came when the ideologues went beyond the industry’s comfort zone.)

In any event, Pfizer is a very practical company. A significant change in their political portfolio one month before the election was portentous.

Still, it was difficult to see how this could trickle down to the state elections in Michigan. As reported, it does appear that Pfizer and other drug companies had made substantial contributions, via the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, to the Spring attacks on legislators who had publicly supported rescinding immunity. (2) There was also one wayward story, perhaps apocryphal, that in the closing days of the campaign some of the pro-immunity candidates had directly appealed to Pfizer for additional funds, receiving the response that the company felt it had already “invested enough in the issue.”

The truth of that story remains uncertain. But what was not uncertain was that drug industry immunity issue had made it to center stage in several key races for the Michigan legislature. In a number of districts, television ads appeared which featured a woman who believed her husband had been killed by Vioxx. Op-eds and letters to the editor on drug company accountability appeared across the state, sometimes linked to particular campaigns, sometimes not.

Those who favored retaining immunity and who felt themselves—not always inaccurately—targeted by these ads, issued denials that only further highlighted the issue. One pro-immunity candidate for the State Senate described the handful of victims and survivors who had had the energy to speak out “a big, slick, powerful front group.” Another pro-immunity incumbent put out a series of last minute television ads, literally begging his constituents to believe that he was in favor of holding drug companies accountable. Still another pro-immunity incumbent protested most vehemently. She, too, insisted that “if a drug company defrauds the public and puts a dangerous drug on the market, the company must be held accountable—end of story.” The real end of the story, however, was that our current Michigan law, which she had consistently supported, makes such accountability impossible.

Like a number of others who had been allied with the pro-immunity cause, this incumbent was voted out of office. In her post-mortem, she specifically blamed her defeat on the television ads that had featured, as she put it, “the Vioxx woman.”

As it turned out, the Vioxx woman was only the beginning. For the first time in eight years, Democrats won control of the Michigan House. Soon-to-be-ex Speaker DeRoche was in shock. Like Arnold, he promised, “we’ll be back.” But he was gone for the foreseeable future, and that meant that it would now be possible to get the vote on the House floor that many had been working toward for a hard, long time. “The Vioxx woman” had won. And the Fat Lady might not be far behind.

Outgoing Minority leader Diane Byrum is anything but a “fat lady.” But, as reported in my last installment, it was Byrum who was most obsessively attacked by the Chamber in their “STOP BYRUM” billboards posted all over Lansing this past Spring. “I don’t deny we had a wind to our backs,” she reflected after the elections. But she also noted that voters were undoubtedly persuaded to vote Democratic as they learned how many of those blocking the bills to rescind drug industry immunity were Republicans.

Sometimes, you do need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. Ironically, perhaps, it was Pfizer’s meteorologists who had provided the forecast. Still, given the national election results, the storm for the drug industry was potentially only beginning. Just yesterday the Times quoted Ken Johnson, a senior vice president at PhRMA, responding to a foreseen national Democratic agenda. “It’s all hands on deck. It’s like a hurricane warning flag. You don’t know where it will hit. You don’t know who will be affected. But everybody has to be prepared.” (3)

Just like the Boy Scouts.

To be continued in Part 4: GESUNDHEIT 911

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Posted at 9:25 AM, Nov 27, 2006 in
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I live in Michigan and I hope that immunity for pharmaceuticals will come to an end. This law only gives the pharmaceuitcals a free pass. It denies the residents of this great state access to the courts, a basic right guaranteed to all citzens.

Posted by: Sheila Bokenkottter | November 27, 2006 10:54 PM