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Democrat Cal Cunningham and his opponent, U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis (R-North Carolina), appeared in a debate on WRAL on Sept. 14, 2020. Democrat Cal Cunningham and his opponent, U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis (R-North Carolina), appeared in a debate on WRAL on Sept. 14, 2020.

Democrat Cal Cunningham and his opponent, U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis (R-North Carolina), appeared in a debate on WRAL on Sept. 14, 2020.

Paul Specht
By Paul Specht September 24, 2020

Cunningham half right about Tillis role in prescription drug efforts

If Your Time is short

  • Democrat Cal Cunningham said his opponent, U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis (R-North Carolina), has been “blocking his own party’s efforts to reduce the cost of prescription drugs.”
  • Tillis has introduced a bill that he says would lower prescription drug costs, and he's voted for others.
  • However, Tillis doesn't support a bipartisan bill that experts consider to be one of the most comprehensive reform efforts in years.

If a coronavirus vaccine is approved by the end of the year, Cal Cunningham says he would have valid reasons for questioning its safety.

For one, government officials have offered mixed messaging on when a vaccine might be ready. (President Trump has suggested November, while others have said that’s unlikely.)

Then, there’s the influence of big healthcare companies on Washington politicians. 

In Monday’s U.S. Senate debate on WRAL, Cunningham accused incumbent Republican Thom Tillis of being a friend of "big pharma." And he pointed to Tillis’ record on pharmaceuticals as an example of "corruption in Washington."

"We can almost look no further than Senator Tillis taking over $400,000 from big pharma, and then even blocking his own party’s efforts to reduce the cost of prescription drugs," Cunningham said. (It’s at 23:45 of this video)

It’s true that Tillis has received more than $400,000 from individuals and political committees tied to the pharmaceutical and health product industries, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Is it true that Tillis has blocked "his own party’s efforts to reduce the cost of prescription drugs?"

Tillis has opposed some bills that aimed to reduce prescription drug prices. (In some cases, he has offered alternatives) However, it’s a stretch to suggest Tillis is responsible for stopping those bills from succeeding. 

The ‘most viable’ bill

The Cunningham campaign pointed to a pair of bills sponsored by Republicans, the most significant of which is the Prescription Drug Pricing Reduction Act of 2019. The bill was introduced by U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, and Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon.

The Washington Post referred to the legislation as "the most viable drug pricing bill in Congress."

It’s probably the "most comprehensive (drug pricing) package" of the last few years, said Juliette Cubanski, deputy director of the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Program on Medicare Policy.

The bill aimed to put an inflation-based cap on some drug prices or require rebates from drug makers.

"It was interesting to see (price caps) included in Grassley’s legislation, considering the Republican belief" in the free market, she told PolitiFact in a phone interview.

Bill stalled

Grassley told CNBC in January that there’s "no other bill that can get the 60 votes required" to pass the Senate. Grassley said he had support from President Trump and some Democrats in the Senate. The problem, he said, were the Senate Republicans.

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Tillis told The Hill last October that he had "concerns" about it, adding he had not made a final decision on how he would vote if the bill came to the floor. In December, Politico reported that Senate leader Mitch McConnell warned colleagues that a vote could expose Republicans to attacks on the campaign trail.

At the time, Politico reported that Tillis opposed the bill, saying the need to put caps on drug prices is being "driven by a lot of populist pressure."

In December, Tillis and five other Republican senators introduced a competing bill known as the Lower Costs, More Cures Act. Of Tillis, Cubanski said "I think it’s notable that he’s one of the co-sponsors of the alternative legislation, which does not include this inflation cap provision."

WBTV reported that, around the same time Tillis introduced his bill, he received more than $20,000 in campaign contributions from political action committees tied to pharmaceutical companies. 

In February, the Washington Post reported that McConnell had not scheduled a vote on the bill because it would divide his Republican caucus. As of the Tillis-Cunningham debate, the bill had still not come up for a vote.

Asked about Grassley’s bill this week, campaign spokesman Andrew Romeo said Tillis supports his alternative bill, but "has had several conversations with Senator Grassley about how to find common ground while striking the balance of lowering drug prices and protecting innovation." 

Other bills

Tillis is a top recipient of campaign contributions from people and PACs affiliated with the pharmaceutical industry. A Kaiser Health News analysis found that Tillis received more than $156,000 from political action committees tied to drug manufacturers in 2019, more than any other member of Congress.

The Cunningham campaign also cited the Creating and Restoring Equal Access to Equivalent Samples Act of 2018, known as the CREATES Act. Initial Republican co-sponsors included Grassley, as well as Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Mike Lee of Utah and Susan Collins of Maine.

The legislation aimed to end "shenanigans" that delay competition from generic and biosimilar drugs, according to the American Journal of Managed Care. Tillis initially opposed the CREATES Act, but his office says he supported it after it was amended and included in an appropriations bill.

In 2019, Bloomberg reported that Tillis and Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware, worked together against efforts to crack down on patent abuses. 

RealClearHealth, a right-leaning news site, reported that Tillis and Coons have sought to change patent law in ways that would "lead to increased prescription drug prices, reduced access to life saving treatments and medications and de-incentivize research and development."

Our ruling

Cunningham says Tillis has a record of "blocking his own party’s efforts to reduce the cost of prescription drugs."

It’s fair to say that, in a few instances, Tillis has opposed his own party’s efforts to reduce the cost of prescription drugs. That includes Grassley’s bill, which experts see as a significant effort.

But Tillis has also offered alternatives. And there’s not a lot of definitive proof that Tillis, alone, has halted legislation that would have otherwise passed.

Cunningham’s statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context. We rate it Half True.

Our Sources

Video of the U.S. Senate debate on WRAL on Sept. 14, 2020.

Campaign donations to candidates in the North Carolina Senate race, compiled and categorized by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Email correspondence with Andrew Romeo, spokesman for the Thom Tillis campaign.

Email correspondence with Aaron Simpson, spokesman for the Cal Cunningham campaign.

Telephone interview with Juliette Cubanski, deputy director of the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Program on Medicare Policy.

The Prescription Drug Pricing Reduction Act of 2019 on Congress.gov.

The Creating and Restoring Equal Access to Equivalent Samples Act of 2018 on Congress.gov.

The Further Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2020 on Congress.gov.

Stories by the Washington Post, "The Health 202: The most viable drug pricing bill in Congress is getting a makeover," published Dec. 5, 2019; "Trump’s support for bipartisan Senate drug pricing bill may not be enough to push it into law," published Feb. 18, 2020.

Analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation, "What’s the latest on prescription drug proposals from the Trump Administration, Congress and the Biden campaign?" published Sept. 15, 2020.

Story by CNBC, "GOP Sen. Grassley turns to House Speaker Pelosi for help selling his bipartisan drug pricing bill," published Jan. 7, 2020.

Story by The Hill, "Vulnerable Republicans balk at Trump-backed drug pricing bill," published Oct. 26, 2019.
Story by Politico, "Democrats box in Republicans on drug pricing," published Dec. 16, 2019.

Statement by the office of U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, "Tillis co-introduces legislation to tackle prescription drug prices," released Dec. 20, 2019.

Story by WBTV, "Tillis took pharmaceutical money within weeks of co-sponsoring new drug price bill," published Sept. 16, 2020.

Story by Kaiser Health News, "Senators who led pharma-friendly patent reform also prime targets for pharma cash," published March 24, 2020.

Story by the American Journal of Managed Care, "5 things to know about the CREATES Act," published June 22, 2018.

Statement by U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, "Grassley, Leahy Hail Inclusion of CREATES Act In Year-End Spending Agreement," released Dec. 16, 2019.

Story by Bloomberg Government, "Drug industry notches win as senator rethinks patent measure," published June 18, 2019.

Story by RealClearHealth, "Tillis-Coons bill would undo major Supreme Court rulings preventing big pharma’s patent abuse," published June 14, 2019.

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Cunningham half right about Tillis role in prescription drug efforts

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