King John 

Drug wars at the State Capitol

Drug wars at the State Capitol

A couple of weeks ago, Lt. Gov. John Wilder—a Democrat of the (very) old school—decided to unveil an "agenda" for Tennessee. Tops on his list: bringing down the cost of prescription drugs.

So, one of Wilder's flunkies dashed off a press release quoting him as saying that by "entering into a buying coalition with partner states, we'll have the clout to greatly lower our costs and get out of the business of being held hostage by pharmaceutical drug makers. This will be good for the state of Tennessee, good for TennCare and good for those who have to pay outrageous prices for prescription drugs. The only people who won't like this plan are the price-gouging drug companies." The release further noted that Wilder would also consider re-importing drugs from Canada.

This was amusing for a few reasons. First, there's the very notion that this was a verbatim quotation by Wilder himself, which would make it the most coherent thing he's uttered in over a decade. Second, there's the belief that other states would be itching to join Tennessee in any sort of health care venture, given our 10-year TennCare experiment that has made us the Death Star of state-subsidized medicine. Third, there's the idea of re-importing drugs from foreign countries, which would violate federal law.

Republicans, who are eyeing Wilder's seat this election season, could have fairly critiqued this proposal on a number of grounds. Instead, they—like most everyone else—pretty much ignored it. The Republicans became apoplectic, however, when the House and Senate Democratic leadership decided to just forego substantive health care policy proposals altogether and simply pin all of the blame for high drug costs on pharmaceutical company executives who give money to Republicans.

Last week, led by Senate Democratic Caucus leader Joe Haynes and his House counterpart Randy Rinks, the Democrats took aim at John M. Gregory, the former CEO of upper East Tennessee's King Pharmaceuticals. King is under investigation by the SEC and the federal Department of Health and Human Services for overcharging the Medicaid program for its drug products during Gregory's tenure. Gregory himself has also been sued in federal court by investors accusing him and other King executives of inflating sales figures for their own enrichment. Gregory is also—wouldn't you know—a major donor to Republican causes, including over $800,000 in the past few months alone distributed to political action committees for use against Democratic incumbents across the state.

The Democrats called on theRepublicans to refund these contributions, which will of course happen around the time that swine take flight.

Senate Republican leader Ron Ramsey, whose own PAC has also received substantial contributions from Gregory in the past, came to the defense of his party's benefactor the old fashioned way: he just changed the subject.

"If the Democrat Party was serious about keeping the cost of prescription drugs and health care low," Ramsey said via a GOP-sponsored press release, "then they should stop the frivolous lawsuits caused by trial lawyers. This drives up the cost of health care and costs Tennesseans jobs. This is an act the state legislature actually can control." Ramsey also called on Democrats to return (yawn) political donations from trial lawyers.

Trial lawyers are perennial Republican targets (though just how unpopular they truly are is very debatable; somebody's buying all those John Grisham books). But all of the political contributions to Democrats from state trial lawyers don't even come close to the Republican contributions from Gregory and his family. Which, of course, is what the Democrats are actually pissed off about.

The irony is that the bulk of Gregory's monetary contributions to Republicans have much less to do with anything regarding the pharmaceutical industry than they do with the advancement of Christian conservative causes. Gregory—whom Forbes listed as the 317th richest person in America in 2001—is well known in Republican circles for targeting his political money to candidates pursuing pro-life causes and other "family values" issues. He has made no secret of his evangelical background, and, in fact, the very name of King Pharmaceuticals itself is religiously derived. Too bad the company may not have incorporated the Golden Rule into its day-to-day operations when he was in charge.

Elephant sanctuary

When it comes to political contributions, John Gregory is only part of the reason that the Volunteer State is as Republican as they come. According to www.fundrace.org, Tennessee is second only to Nebraska in terms of monetary gifts to Republicans in proportion to Democrats on the national level.

As usual, Nashvillians played a key role. Heavy-hitter donors to the Republican National Committee include Clay Jackson, vice president of BB& T Corp. ($25,000), Monroe Carrell of Central Parking Corp. ($25,000) and Jack Bovender, CEO of Columbia/HCA ($25,000). The only Democratic National Committee giver from Nashville of note—thus far—is Jane Eskind ($50,000).

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