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Hotel, pharma lobbyists win Philly City Council vote against drug rep law

An unusual coalition of leftist and GOP Philadelphia City Council members, hearing drug and hotel lobbyist objections, voted down a drug-rep registration bill backed by city health officials and anti-opiod activists.

City Hall is seen amongst a group of Cast-iron sculptures by British artist Antony Gormley, titled STAND at the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of art in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
City Hall is seen amongst a group of Cast-iron sculptures by British artist Antony Gormley, titled STAND at the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of art in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)Read moreAP

An unusual coalition of leftist and Republican City Council members killed a proposal (Ordinance 180888) backed by city health officials and anti-drug activists that would have forced pharmaceutical sales representatives to register with the city and tracked their gifts to doctors.

Supporters had hoped the measure would limit reckless opiod painkiller sales that have fed addictions and killed hundreds of city residents.

Assuming the bill would be popular with what cosponsor Cindy Bass called “progressive” Philadelphians, cosponor Bill Greenlee tried to shame opponents by posting the names of No voters on social media.

Voting the bill down were pro-business Republicans Al Taubenberger, David Oh and Brian O’Neill, activist Democrats Helen Gym, Maria Quiñones Sánchez and Derek Green, recently indicted Democrat Bobby Henon, the council’s majority leader, plus fellow Democrats Mark Squilla and Alan Domb.

Greenlee and Bass were joined by fellow Democrats Kenyatta Johnson, council chairman Darrell Clarke and Jannie Blackwell in voting Yes. The other three council members were absent or recused.

Healthcare and drugs are big employers in the Philadelphia area. It’s not unusual for politicians to have personal ties to drug interests. For example, Gym’s husband, Bret Flaherty, a lawyer, works for AmerisourceBergen.

That Conshohocken-based company, one of the largest U.S. drug distributors, is facing a series of civil lawsuits for its role in pumping opioid painkillers into communities in high proportion to area populations. Company officials have blamed doctors for over-prescribing. Gym and her staff didn’t return a call and emails seeking comment.

Drug company lobbyists, and hotel lobbyists who feared the law would chase away lucrative drug and life sciences convention business, cheered the vote.

“This is a welcome development,” said Christopher P. Molineaux, president of Life Sciences Pennsylvania, which opposed the bill alongside national drug industry groups. “This bill was written under the guise of addressing the opioid abuse epidemic but was, in fact, designed to restrict interactions between pharmaceutical sales representatives and the physicians who prescribe the medicines that are studied, developed and manufactured by those reps’ companies.” He also claimed the monitoring in the bill would do “nothing to reverse the opioid abuse epidemic.”

Hospitality industry reps, speaking for one of the city’s few growth industries, had worried limits on pharma could have the effect of chasing away doctors and drug reps who eat in the city’s fancy restaurants and fill hotel beds at conventions and industry meetings.

Bass pledged to “continue fighting to address the drug crisis.”

Backers last year assumed the bill would pass easily, given City Council’s record of passing laws restricting business. But opponents said Mayor Kenney got a whiff of the depth of industry opposition last fall, when he visited London and couldn’t get a meeting with top officers of GlaxoSmithKline. The company employs around 900 at its Navy Yard offices and over 3,000 in suburban Collegeville. Kenney’s office said it was unaware of a link between the bill and the scheduling miss.

The Greenlee and Bass bill would require drug salespeople to register with the city, wear distinctive badges, and submit drug sales and marketing propaganda for city review — violations could run up to $500 a day.

Before the vote, city health department spokesman Dan Garrow blamed the opioid crisis that earlier this winter left hundreds of addicts living in tent villages and abandoned homes in Kensington on “aggressive marketing of prescription painkillers by pharmaceutical sales representatives.” He added that “Prescribing of other drugs that can be abused — such as amphetamine, also known as Adderall — has also risen significantly.”

The bill "attempts to limit the damage from this aggressive marketing.”

To “restore trust among patients,” the bill would require drugmakers to register their sales reps with the health department, pass out health department warnings, wear health department badges and ID numbers, submit their drug marketing materials to the health department so it can suggest “further education and training” (for example, in pain management) for both salespeople and doctors, and pay a yearly fee of up to $250, in addition to the $500 a day charges for violations.

Chicago and Washington also register drug reps, according to bill sponsor Greenlee.

Opponents question whether a municipal drug policy is needed, now that FDA has re-tightened its opioid painkiller guidelines. Supporters said experience has shown cities that trust the FDA to do this job will be overrun by drug abusers.