Monday, June 22, 2009

Rangel-ing Over Drug Promotional Expenses: A Tussle That Might Not Scare Pharma Too Much

The advertising, broadcast and medical publishing sectors were thrown into a tizzy on June 16 when reports from Capitol Hill said that removing the tax deductibility of drug promotional expenses remains a live issue in the funding discussions around health care reform.

They should have been ready. There have been reverberations for over a year that pharma’s critics on Capitol Hill might try to raise some money for health care reform from the drug industry’s marketing budgets. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel has previously talked about giving manufacturers a choice between deducting R&D expenses or promotional expenses.

So it shouldn’t have come as such a shock when House Ways & Means Chairman Charles Rangel (D-NY) said on June 16 that his committee was looking seriously at removing the deductibility for drug promotional spending. But the thought of losing such a lucrative and solid stream of funding has a way of focusing the attention of the sectors that count on pharma promotional budgets: think of the nightly news programs on TV. Their ad sales staff must be in a panic.

The $37 billion price tag that Rangel casually attached to the possible change quantified the challenge and gave it a magnitude that made it more threatening.

The $37 billion figure is presumably calculated as a ten-year revenue estimate, the format that dominates government projections. It does not, however, appear to relate directly to any discreet part of promotional spending like DTC, which is generally estimated at about $4 billion per year.

Eliminating ten years of DTC expenditures would add up to a figure in the ballpark range to Rangel’s number, but that does not mean the government would collect that amount of money. The government revenues would come from the reduced taxes on the expenditures, not from the reduced expenditures. The total expenditures do not translate directly into new tax revenues.

To achieve $37 billion in new tax revenues at the current corporate tax rate would require removing the drug industry business deductions on somewhere around $106 billion in expenditures over the next ten years.

We’ll have to wait a while to find out where the calculation comes from. Removing the tax deductibility of promotional spending was not included in the June 19 draft of the House Democratic health reform proposal.

There is one quick hint in the bill about what promotional expenses being considered for losing deductibility. The June 19 draft contains a penalty provision for companies that do not live up to new sunshine disclosure provisions for gifts to doctors. If companies get caught failing to report gifts or misreporting gifts, then they would lose the ability to deduct “any expenditure relating to the advertising, promoting, or marketing (in any medium)” of a drug or device during the year of the violation.

That can’t be a penalty if elsewhere the bill would take away the deductibility of all promotional spending. Therefore, the Democrats do not appear to have in mind a full-out assault on the deductibility of promotional spending. Which means if you are a business that relies on promotional spending from pharma, now is the time to get to the Hill to draw the line between the dollars that support your efforts versus the dollars that support other forms of promotion. The definition could have a big impact.

Did Critics Force Pharma To Cut Back Spending Too Early?

Maybe Rangel and company hoped to get some of the saving from the lavish pharma entertaining budgets. But in what may now appear in hindsight as a strategic miscalculation, the industry critics have already forced pharma to stop some of that entertaining voluntarily – getting rid of what could have been a nice source of health care funds.

Pharma’s voluntary cutbacks over the past five years in the most unseemly marketing practices, in fact, gives a hint why Rangel’s comments may not scare the industry so deeply.

Forcing pharma companies to think more carefully about their marketing expenditures (as tax disadvantaged expenditures will be more painful) may provide the cover that some industry execs want to trim back marketing and sales budgets. This is similar to arguments by pharma execs for decades that they did not like having to fund expensive sampling/giveaway programs but were afraid to stop until their competitors stopped.

An across-the-board rule like taxing ad expenditures would force all the industry companies to reassess promotional budgets and force an assessment of new ways to build customer loyalty and interest in their products.

In Vivo Blog and its affiliate The RPM Report have been touting the new post-market control programs (the REMS of the 2007 FDAAA Act) that are being required more frequently by the Food & Drug Administration as an alternative to fill the gap for discredited promotional activities. There are other, less costly ways that the current detail forces and TV ads for pharma to build its ties to the medical community and patients. Rangel and his tax approach may just be hastening the era of those changes.

That may be why we are hearing that some influential strategists within pharma are not putting a fight with Rangel at the top of the 2009 health care reform fight. Privately, they say there are much more important fights and issues in health care reform to waste too much time and effort fighting the deductibility of promotional expenses. This may be a legislative argument that pharma is not afraid to lose. They won’t say that openly, but don’t expect much effort and money directly from the drug companies to be devoted to the promotion fight.

Of course, if pharma reacts in a prudent way to higher promotional costs and cuts back those expenditures effectively, then the government will not have promotional tax dollars as one of its sources of revenues for health care reform. That would mean that the government would under-estimate the sources of funding for a new health care program. Would that be the first time?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

DTC is just a very small part of pharma companies expenditures - yes the most visible but not the most expensive. If they taxed the value of all promotional expenses including sales calls, that might raise $37 billion.