The crowds were remarkable during the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America annual meeting March 18 just outside of Washington DC: the standing room only crowd inside the meeting, a too-crowded agenda that quickly fell far behind schedule--and the complete absence of crowds outside.
Taken together, all three observations add up to the same thing: PhRMA's support for health care reform really has transformed the trade association's position in Washington.
First, the crowd inside. It was a packed room only for the morning session. Now granted that it was a small ballroom, that fact is still remarkable, given the consolidation among PhRMA's biggest members and the deep cuts across the industry.
The SRO crowd reflects the event's timing: days before what will be the crucial vote on health care reform (the key issue for PhRMA for the past 12 monhts), Washington is the place to be.
It also reflects PhRMA's efforts to bring in a broader base of stakeholders, both smaller company members but also outside groups and allies that it worked so hard to cultivate in the reform debate. There aren't enough Big Pharma CEOs to fill a big room anymore, but PhRMA has adjusted.
And then there was a bursting-at-the-seams agenda. In addition to the perennials--speeches from the incoming and outgoing association chairs, departing CEO Billy Tauzin, and various advocates and boosters of R&D, PhRMA landed one Democratic member of Congress (Deputy Whip G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina), a Democratic governor (West Virginia's Joe Manchin, who incidentally, is the incoming chair of the National Governor's Association) and four key figures from the Obama Administration: Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, HHS Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Nicole Lurie, National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins, and FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg.
To think, PhRMA used to go years without a Democratic pol on the agenda--and sometimes had thin representation even from GOP Administration figures afraid of being painted as too close to industry.
Then there were the crowds outside, or lack thereof.
There was one discordant note inside: House Republican Whip Eric Cantor--in a very civil, understated and brief speech--expressed his deep disappointment with PhRMA's position on reform. He outlined his views that the bill runs counter to free market principles and will ultimately damage industry severely.
While suggesting that the trade association's initial support for the bill was perhaps understandable last year when Obama was so popular and reform looked inevitable, he found it "perplexing" that PhRMA is continuing to push for reform when it could (and in Cantor's view will) be defeated.
Cantor quoted an old Ronald Reagan axiom: "It is a mistake to the feed the crocodile in the hopes that it eats you last."
One wonders how many members of the audience agree with Cantor's free market philosophy and reservations about the future of the US health care system--while still hoping he proves wrong about the ultimate vote count.