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Healthcare

By Ahmed Aboulenein and Carl O'Donnell

(Reuters) - Democratic Party lawmakers holding up proposed drug pricing reforms are among the largest beneficiaries of the pharmaceutical industry's push to stave off price cuts, a Reuters analysis of public lobbying and campaign data shows.

The industry, which traditionally gives more to Republicans, channeled around 60% of donated campaign funds to Democrats this year. It has spent over $177 million on lobbying and campaign donations in 2021.

Political action committees (PACs) run by Pfizer Inc and Amgen Inc and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) were among the biggest donors, according to political spending data from OpenSecrets, formerly the Center for Responsive Politics.

Drugmakers are seeking to block laws that would give the U.S. government authority to negotiate prices for prescription medicines. Current U.S. law bars the government's Medicare health insurance program from negotiating drug prices directly.

Many of the Democrats opposing an ambitious drug reduction bill proposed in the House of Representatives are among some of the biggest recipients of drug manufacturer lobbying funds.

They include Senators Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, and Representative Scott Peters of California, OpenSecrets data covering industry donations through September of 2021 shows. In all, they have received around $1 million in pharmaceutical and health product industry donations this year.

A spokesperson for Sinema did not respond to a request for comment on the funds she has received but said the Senator supports making drugs as cheap as possible for patients.

Menendez and Peters said the donations did not influence their views. All three said they are opposed to The Lower Drug Costs Now Act, which is sponsored by Democrats in the House of Representatives and also known as H.R.3.

Menendez and Peters have advocated for alternative scaled-back drug pricing reforms that would still allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices but would lead to significantly smaller savings.

Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey, who is also one of the top recipients of drugmaker donations, voted in favor of H.R.3.

Sinema, who campaigned in 2018 on cutting drug prices, told the White House she opposes allowing Medicare to negotiate them. She received about $466,000 from the industry in 2021, according to OpenSecrets data.

Peters was the top recipient of pharmaceutical industry funds in the House this year at nearly $99,550, according to OpenSecrets data. A spokesperson said Peters was not influenced by lobbying money and opposed the proposed law to protect pharmaceutical industry jobs and innovation.

Drugmakers say the Democrats' proposed drug price overhaul would undermine their ability to develop new medicines, an argument they have used whenever price cuts are discussed by politicians regardless of political party.

"Patients face a future with less hope under Congress' current drug pricing plan," PhRMA Chief Executive Steve Ubl said in an August statement in reference to the proposed law. PhRMA declined to comment on donating to key Democratic opponents of the bill.

The United States is an outlier as most other developed nations do negotiate drug prices with manufacturers.

Amgen did not immediately respond to requests for comment on its donations and Pfizer declined to comment.

Prospects For Reform

President Joe Biden has vowed to cut medicine costs, in part by allowing the federal government to negotiate drug payments by Medicare, which covers Americans aged 65 and older.

But prospects for major drug pricing reforms have stalled in recent weeks amid opposition from centrist Democrats including Sinema and Peters. Negotiations are ongoing, eight Democratic staffers said.

The lawmakers' resistance comes as 83% of Americans support allowing Medicare to negotiate medicine costs, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll. The United States spends more than twice as much per person on drugs as other wealthy economies, about $1,500, for a total of around $350 billion in 2019.

"Members of Congress don't always mirror the views of the public and the pharmaceutical industry is a powerful lobbying force," said Larry Levitt, a health economist at Kaiser.

The healthcare industry is the second largest industry lobbying group in the United States behind the finance sector. It donated more than $600 million to politicians ahead of the 2020 elections.

The pharmaceutical industry has spent hundreds of millions of dollars per year to sway federal and state policy. But current Democratic leadership has the industry concerned major reforms could actually be enacted and is working harder to offer alternatives such as reducing insurance co-pays, one industry source said. "It's been sort of a mad scramble."

Corporations in the United States are not permitted to make direct contributions to candidates but can give money through PACs. Most corporate PACs, including Pfizer's and Amgen's, are run by company managers and employees.

Democrats and some drug price experts say the Lower Drug Costs Now Act could save U.S. taxpayers and consumers billions annually with relatively minor impact on innovation.

A House Oversight and Reform Committee report showed that top drugmakers have spent around $50 billion more on share buybacks and dividends than research and development between 2016 and 2020.

Lovisa Gustafsson, a healthcare policy analyst at the Commonwealth Fund, a non-profit healthcare advocacy group, said, "There are other ways that we can incentivize innovation, aside from just paying huge margins for pharmaceutical companies."

(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein in Washington and Carl O'Donnell in New York; Editing by Caroline Humer and Bill Berkrot)

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By Peter Szekely and Barbara Goldberg

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Jennifer Bridges loved her job as a nurse at Houston Methodist Hospital, where she worked for eight years, but she chose to get fired rather than inoculated against COVID-19, believing that the vaccine was more of a threat than the deadly virus.

Bridges was among about 150 employees who were fired or resigned rather than comply with the requirement at Methodist, which was the country's first large health system to mandate vaccinations. About 25,000 other employees at the hospital system complied.

"I have never felt so strong about anything," said Bridges, 39, who lives in Houston. She was terminated from her $70,000 per year post on June 21, the deadline for employees to get a jab. "I did not feel there was proper research in this shot. It had been developed very quickly."

Houston Methodist is one of a growing number of private employers that have made vaccinations a requirement of the job. New York and California are among the states that have required vaccinations for healthcare workers.

Mandates have proven to be effective in boosting vaccination rates in healthcare. In New York, for example, Governor Kathy Hochul on Thursday said 92 percent of the state's more than 625,000 healthcare workers were inoculated, up from 73 percent on August 16 when former Governor Andrew Cuomo laid down a September 27 deadline for vaccinations.

Then-Health Commissioner Howard Zucker said the mandate would "help close the vaccination gap" and reduce the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant.

Even so, there are pockets of resistance in the healthcare field. Those interviewed by Reuters said they had been immunized for other diseases, but said a lack of long-term data on the three COVID vaccines available in the United States was reason enough for them to step into an uncertain future after years of job security.

Speaking in support of the vaccines available in the United States, medical experts have said they had received emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration in less than a year, instead of the usual several years, due to factors including ample funding and test subjects, piggybacking off earlier research, and international collaboration.

'Slap In My Face'

Many of the workers who walked away had enough financial wherewithal to allow them to stick to their convictions.

For Bridges, the high demand for nurses meant she could refuse the shot without sacrificing financial security. On the same day she was fired by Methodist, she started training for her next job at a private nursing company that has no vaccine mandate.

Nurse Katie Yarber also found a job after leaving Houston Methodist but only after going 12 weeks without a paycheck and depleting "a big chunk" of her savings. Still, she said she does not regret her decision to depart after 14 years of service.

Yarber, 35, said she would not get the vaccine because of her religious convictions, a stance that the hospital rejected. She is also wary of possible long-term side effects.

"I kind of felt like it was a slap in my face," said Yarber, who began working at the hospital as a medical records clerk before earning a nursing degree. "I went to work, I did my job, I did it with a smile. I was a really good employee."

Yarber, who said she has already had COVID, is now a work-from-home nurse case manager. She had a brief stint at Texas Children's Hospital but that ended when it too required vaccinations.

Carolyn Euart is one of about 175 workers dismissed last Monday after refusing vaccinations at Novant Health, a North Carolina hospital network. She is now considering a new career.

With 24 years as a patient services coordinator, Euart, 56, had planned to retire from Novant, but is now exploring opening a dessert restaurant and sweet shop.

After battling cancer since 2008, she felt the risk of a vaccine was greater than COVID, which four of her family members have had.

"I needed the job, but I didn't think that my job was worth my life," she said.

A Novant spokeswoman said on Tuesday that 99 percent of its more than 35,000 employees have been vaccinated against coronavirus.

Nationally, more than 77 percent of adults have received at least one vaccine dose, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The country's COVID death toll has surpassed 700,000, according to a Reuters tally.

In upstate New York, Andrew Kurtyko said he is ready to be fired from his $90,000 nursing job at Mount St. Mary's Hospital in Lewiston for refusing the shot. He knows he could earn more by working as a "travel nurse," taking temporary jobs around the country.

"Certainly with my years of experience, I'm pretty marketable," said Kurtyko, 47, a divorced father of a college student who has a mortgage to pay.

Like some other medical workers, Kurtyko questions the efficacy and safety of the vaccines. He is also seeking a religious exemption from the Catholic Hospital. If he is denied, he expects to lose his job on October12.

Bob Nevens, 47, Houston Methodist's top risk manager for 10 years, also prefers to take his chances with COVID over a vaccine. As a consequence, he became one of the country's first workplace mandate casualties in April.

Besides a lack of long-term data, Nevens said he refused Methodist's mandate because it did not acknowledge "natural immunity" for those who had already contracted COVID and because vaccine manufacturers are shielded from liability.

He said he was not worried about money.

"Financially, I'm fine," he said. "Mentally, it's exhausting, because I didn't want to make that decision. I had planned on retiring from Houston Methodist."

(Reporting by Peter Szekely and Barbara Goldberg in New York; Editing by Frank McGurty and Daniel Wallis)