Election 2020

Proponent of Failed California Ballot Measure Tries Again With Ohio Drug Price Act

Tuskegee Airman Don Elder speaks out in favor of a fall ballot issue involving drug prices during a rally at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio, on Sept. 21, 2017. (AP Photo/Julie Carr Smyth)

A year after California voters rejected a proposal to lower prescription drug prices, Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation in Los Angeles, is trying again in Ohio.

Now, he is leading a drive in the Buckeye State for approval of a November ballot proposition, Issue 2, that Weinstein promises would force drug companies to cut prices.

“This is a long-term battle for us. We’ve been fighting for clean needles for more than 25 years. We’ve been fighting for lower drug prices for more than 15 years,” Weinstein told Ohio reporters.

Weinstein sees this as a David vs. Goliath political battle and, of course, Weinstein portrays his side as the “David” of the struggle.

“They’re going to spend as much money as it takes.…It seems to be on pace to be about $50 million,” Weinstein told Ohio reporters in a late September conference call.

The Ohio Drug Price Act would stop state government from paying more for prescription drugs than what the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs pays either through direct purchases made by state officials or through purchases made by programs funded by the federal department.

California voters rejected the same proposal — Proposition 61 on their November 2016 ballots — by a 54-46 percent margin. The Los Angeles Times reported groups opposed to Weinstein’s initiative raised $109 million to defeat the measure. Proposition 61 backers raised $19 million.

“Money makes a difference, particularly in ballot measure campaigns when you can’t look at a living, breathing candidate to evaluate them,” Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and the president of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission, told the Sacramento Bee. “You’re going more on advertisements, mailers and information put out by the campaigns.”

Roger Salazar, a spokesman for Weinstein’s Proposition 61 campaign in California, told the Bee there was no doubt in his mind that money made the difference.

“If we had $20 million and they had $20 million, we would have won this thing,” Salazar said. “When you get outspent by $100 million, it’s hard to get your message across and counter the misinformation they put out so freely.”

But the deep pockets of prescription drug companies weren’t Weinstein’s only California problem. Even though he runs the AIDS Healthcare Foundation in L.A. — and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) campaign by Weinstein’s side — some AIDS activists came out against Proposition 61.

The New York Times reported some California AIDS activists were worried that Proposition 61 would wind up cutting off money that drug companies were spending on research and development of drugs. Others were afraid pharmaceutical companies would just raise prices that the Department of Veterans Affairs was paying.

“To his many critics in AIDS activism, Weinstein is the Koch brothers of public health: a mastermind driven by ideology, accountable to no one, with bottomless funds and an agenda marked by financial opportunism and puritanical extremes,” the Times also reported.

This time around, Weinstein has challenged drug company CEOs campaigning against the Ohio Drug Price Act ballot proposition to a televised debate and said he’ll put up the money to pay for the statewide broadcast of the event.

Ohioans Against the Deceptive Rx Ballot Issue, on the other hand, call Weinstein a “California health-care CEO” whose proposition is a “Prescription for Disaster.”

The Akron Beacon Journal accused the group backing Issue 2, Ohio Taxpayers for Lower Drug Prices, of confusing voters with a new TV ad that claims the proposition to lower drug prices would also result in a $400 million tax cut.

“Cut taxes? Nothing in the ballot language suggests such a result. Neither has the debate ranged into this realm until now,” the Beacon Journal wrote.

“It may be that state lawmakers will look at any savings as an opportunity to cut taxes, something of a default position for Republicans in charge at the Statehouse. Yet the contention in the ad is that the issue ‘will’ reduce taxes and by a specific sum. That isn’t so,” the Beacon Journal’s editorial concluded.

However, former congressman and mayor of Cleveland Dennis Kucinich has come out in support of Issue 2.

“If health care is going to be affordable, we have to make prescription drugs affordable. To me it’s a basic economic principle,” Kucinich told the Dayton Daily News.

He also brought up the $400 million savings claim that the Akron Beacon Journal criticized.

“What I’m about is trying to communicate very clearly to people, that if Ohioans vote to approve Issue 2, the state will be able to negotiate with drug companies and save $400 million a year. That’s it,” Kucinich said.

Dale Butland, spokesman for Ohioans Against the Deceptive Rx Ballot Issue, told the Toledo Blade that even though several debates had been held across the state, his group was negotiating to put on the statewide TV debate that Weinstein wants.

However, Butland also contended one more debate wouldn’t change the mind of many voters.

“The problem is not a lack of debates,” Butland said. “It’s that he has a lousy proposal that would hurt Ohio and its people.”