July 16, 2002

New Report Unmasks United Seniors Association as Hired Gun for Drug Industry

Drug Companies Appear to Have Given Seniors Group Nearly $10 Million
to Push Medicare Drug Bill Favored by Industry

WASHINGTON, D.C. ? As the U.S. Senate prepares for a showdown on proposals to add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare, the pharmaceutical industry is using a seniors group to run a multimillion-dollar issue ad campaign promoting GOP legislation favored by drug companies, according to a new Public Citizen report.

In the report released today, United Seniors Association: Hired Guns for PhRMA and Other Corporate Interests, Public Citizen reveals how the United Seniors Association (USA) has acted as a shill for major industries, especially pharmaceutical companies, seeking to influence federal policy and elections. This highly partisan organization was criticized for years for its overblown scare tactics in direct-mail fundraising letters. But during the past two years, USA has shifted its emphasis to TV and radio "issue" ads ? underwritten by large corporate donations.

Public Citizen estimates that USA has spent $12 million on issue ads during the past 17 months. The lion?s share of this spending ? $9.6 million ? was used to promote President Bush and House Republican leaders? prescription drug plan. Their plan, which is favored by the drug industry, would provide Medicare beneficiaries with subsidies to buy private insurance rather than create a comprehensive drug coverage program through Medicare ? the favored proposal of most seniors and consumer groups. This level of spending would make USA the biggest ad buyer in this Congress (2001-2002) ? despite the fact that the group appears to not have spent a cent on issue ads during the last election cycle.

The issue ad tactics are similar to those used during the 2000 election when USA joined Citizens for Better Medicare (CBM), a drug-industry front group created by the brand name drug companies? trade association, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA). CBM spent approximately $65 million on television advertising ? a large chunk dedicated to electioneering "issue" ads ? during the 2000 cycle. But this year, PhRMA has turned to USA, which already existed, to promote its agenda on the airwaves.

"By concealing its identity behind this seniors group, the pharmaceutical industry is using the elderly to push a plan that provides weak coverage while protecting the huge profits of drug companies," said Frank Clemente, director of Public Citizen?s Congress Watch. "During the last election, drug makers financed Citizens for Better Medicare. This election, they are renting the United Seniors Association."

Findings from the report include:

  • USA?s largest issue ad war is a $9.6 million campaign focusing on Medicare prescription drug issues. The latest wave is a $2 million ad-buy that began in early July 2002 and thanks 29 representatives for supporting the House GOP prescription drug bill. Just prior to these newest ads, USA ran a $4.6 million TV ad campaign in May and June to coincide with House Republican leaders? push for legislative action on a Medicare drug bill. And earlier in the legislative session, in August 2001, USA?s first set of TV ads on Medicare drug benefit issues began with a $3 million ad-buy in 19 congressional districts.
  • PhRMA has admitted to funding much, if not all, of the $4.6 million ad-buy in May and June through an "unrestricted educational grant." PhRMA and USA would neither confirm nor deny that the industry paid for the entire $9.6 million. But the similar messages contained in the ads and significant overlap in the districts where they ran means it is quite likely that PhRMA?s funding and strategy is behind them all.
  • USA?s ad spending appears to highlight a major expansion in the size and scope of the group?s activities. The $9.6 million spent on ads over the last 12 months is more than the group?s $9 million total budget in 2000, the last year for which information is available. Searches of media reports and the group?s financial disclosure reports show no signs of ad spending prior to 2001.
  • USA is staffed and directed by political operatives with deep connections to the Republican Party. Members of the USA board of directors include lobbyists and media experts such as Jack Abramoff (GOP fundraiser and member of the Republican National Committee executive committee from 1981-1985) and Craig Shirley (whose public relations firm represents the Republican National Committee).
  • Behind the pharmaceutical ads are people with long connections to drug industry front groups and GOP politics. Ads in August and September 2001 focusing on the Medicare prescription drug issue were produced by Cold Harbor Films, which is headed by Alex Castellanos, who produced ads in 2000 for presidential candidate George W. Bush, the Republican National Committee and CBM. The May/June 2002 ad wave was produced by Tim Ryan, who worked as PhRMA?s marketing director until he was tapped to lead CBM during the last election cycle.

Speaking at a press conference held to unveil the report were Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Richard Durbin (D-Ill.); and Reps. Marion Berry (D-Ark.) and Janice Schakowsky (D-Ill.).

"It?s time Congress listens to the America public instead of the drug industry and other powerful special interests," Kennedy said. "I applaud Public Citizen?s efforts to unmask this latest fraud played on America?s seniors by the drug industry."

Added Stabenow, "It is our hope that Americans will see through these misleading ads and recognize them for what they really are ? an attempt to trick them into supporting legislation that offers little more than empty promises and inadequate coverage."

Click here to view a copy of Public Citizen's report.

Click here to find issue ads that may be running in your state. Scroll down and click on the link next to the member of Congress.

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