HIV/AIDS activists expressed discontent after a meeting with Sen. Bernie Sanders on Thursday because he used the opportunity to promote a California ballot initiative on pharmaceutical drugs with which they disagree.
Following the meeting, Sanders issued a statement highlighting his support for the California Drug Price Relief Act, which would prohibit the state from paying more for prescription drugs, including HIV/AIDS treatments, at a rate higher than the lowest price paid for the same drug by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
“We think it’s a great start and we applaud the people of California for standing up to the pharmaceutical industry,” Sanders said in a statement after the meeting.
After a successful citizen petition drive in which nearly 543,000 signatures were submitted, the California Drug Price Relief Act will appear on the state ballot in November.
But HIV/AIDS activists at the meeting say Sanders made no mention of this initiative during the meeting. Instead, they say they brought up the initiative, but only to raise concerns about its passage having a negative impact on HIV/AIDS drugs.
Peter Staley, a New York-based gay rights and HIV/AIDS activist, posted on his Facebook page he feels “used and abused” in the aftermath of the meeting, which took place in San Bernadino days before the California primary on June 7.
“His campaign should not have issued a press release implying this was a major topic of discussion at the meeting, and that there was general agreement on the senator’s position on this,” Staley said. “Anything but.”
Hilary McQuie, director of U.S. policy and grassroots mobilization for the HIV/AIDS group Health GAP, also expressed consternation with Sanders in the aftermath of the meeting.
“We agreed before the meeting that we wouldn’t go heavily into it, but that we would tell him that AIDS orgs are opposed and ask for a commitment to have his staff follow up with them,” McQuie said. “He agreed to that but went on for a bit about how he thought this was good, and as agreed, we didn’t debate it but were surprised and a bunch of folks are pissed that he highlighted that in his press release.”
Anne Donnelly, director of health care policy for Project Inform, wasn’t among the HIV/AIDS activists in attendance at the meeting, but said her organizations has “serious concerns” about the ballot measure.
“The language is so vague that we can’t responsibly analyze it, unfortunately, but what we can see is that it doesn’t appear to actually save California money,” Donnelly said. “There’s no provision in it to help individuals out at all. And it appears that it could have some pretty serious negative outcomes, including increasing the prices of some drugs, including increasing the prices in some systems inside and outside of California, and potentially decreasing access to drugs. So it’s pretty serious.”
The discontent marks a change tone from the news statement from HIV/AIDS activists immediately after the meeting. At the time, they praised Sanders for taking part in the discussion and said he made a commitment to ensuring the Democratic Party platform will include a plank on the need to increase generic competition for pharmaceutical production of HIV/AIDS drugs, such as by reducing U.S. pressure on India to change its patent laws. The Sanders campaign didn’t go as far as to say a commitment was made, but said the candidate hopes that language is included in the platform.
In response to the criticism from HIV/AIDS activists, Michael Briggs, a Sanders spokesperson, said, “The release reflected what the senator believed was important.”
Sanders took part in the meeting with HIV/AIDS activists this week after canceling an earlier meeting he scheduled with them earlier this month. The candidate, along with Hilary Clinton, agreed days before the crucial New York primary to take part in separate meetings. Clinton met with HIV/AIDS activists as planned in Brooklyn, N.Y. and called for an end to the disease “once and for all.”
The California Drug Price Relief Act is co-written by the AIDS Health Foundation, an HIV/AIDS group that has been criticized for being skepticism of PrEP as tool of HIV prevention. Exempt from the initiative are certain purchases of prescription drugs funded through Medi-Cal, which also exempts the AIDS Health Foundation because the organization is a Medi-Cal managed care plan.
Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, is quoted in a report in the San Jose Mercury News as saying the California ballot initiative could lower drug prices for at least 5 million California residents.
“Our primary purpose here is to strengthen the hand of government in negotiating prices, and make clear the public ire over the cost of drugs and the lack of transparency, and that profit is an issue that has to be dealt with,” Weinstein is quoted as saying.
Weinstein criticizes Staley as a ‘shill for pharma’
In a statement to the Blade, Weinstein accused Staley of excluding the organization from the Sanders meeting and said he and Project Inform are a “shill for pharma.”
“What Staley and Project Inform failed to disclose is the fact that their work and livelihoods have basically been funded and paid for by the drug industry,” Weinstein said. “Major funding for Staley’s entrepreneurial website over the years he owned and ran it came from Du Pont Pharmaceuticals, Boehringer Ingelheim, GSK and Gilead Sciences — one of the primary offenders in runaway drug pricing and whose drug pricing and policies served as a catalyst for our drug pricing ballot measure.”
According to Weinstein, Project Inform received over $4.4 million from ten pharmaceutical companies between 2008 and 2014, which he said makes up between 25 percent to 36 percent of Project Inform’s recorded total annual budgets over the last two years.
“It appears that Staley and Project Inform want to monopolize what should be public and robust discussions around AIDS policy despite enormous — albeit heretofore largely hidden — conflicts of interest given their financial relationships with the pharmaceutical industry,” Weinstein concluded.
In response, Staley said Weinstein also receives from pharmaceutical companies and would attack critics “rather than defend his poorly constructed ballot initiative.”
“Weinstein also fails to mention that AHF has taken millions of dollars in pharma grants over the last two decades, more than the sum total received by the seventy plus groups in our coalition,” Staley said. “It is estimated that upwards of 80 percent of AHF’s current revenue comes from its pharmacy chains which sell hundreds of millions of dollars of AIDS drugs every year.”
As for his entrepreneurial website, Staley said he sold it in 2006 to POZ Magazine and since then his AIDS activism has been self financed.
“Weinstein may have missed my outspoken criticism of Gilead, most recently, a firm he took over ten million dollars from in the past,” Staley added.
Staley said HIV/AIDS activists widely disseminated draft letters seeking a meeting with the candidates, but the AIDS Health Foundation didn’t ask to join the list of signees. The group typically eschews coalition efforts, then “pout when they miss important meetings,” Staley said.
Project Inform didn’t immediately respond on Friday to comment on criticism from the AIDS Health Foundation.