Opponents of a November ballot initiative intended to lower prescription drug costs in California have already raised nearly $50 million, putting the measure on track to become one of the most expensive fights in recent years.
The California Drug Price Relief Act would require the state to pay no more than the lowest price the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is charged for a particular prescription.
The VA typically buys drugs at about 40 percent below the prices charged to states, according to the measure's proponent, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation.
The measure would apply to any program in which the state is the ultimate payer for a drug, including Medi-Cal fee-for-service plans and CalPERS, which provides health benefits to current and retired state employees. Adding in prison inmates and people receiving AIDS drugs from the government, the initiative would affect drug prices for programs serving some 5 million people, according to its backers.
The AIDS Healthcare Foundation argues the measure would save taxpayers approximately $5.7 billion over 10 years. As of March 8, the Foundation had raised more than $4.3 million for its campaign committee, Californians for Lower Drug Prices, according to MapLight.org, a nonpartisan research organization.
Meanwhile, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, which opposes the measure, raised about $49 million for its committee, Californians Against the Misleading Rx Measure.
With the two sides having raised a combined $53.3 million almost eight months before the election, the initiative is already among the top 20 most expensive state ballot measures in the past 15 years.
Kathy Fairbanks, a spokeswoman for the pharmaceutical industry's campaign committee, declined to say whether it plans to raise more money. She did note that competing for voters' attention and airtime is expensive.
Fairbanks said the pharmaceutical industry is fighting the initiative because it believes it would lead to increased health costs for veterans and higher prescription drug costs in the state.
Edwin Bender, executive director of FollowTheMoney.org, which tracks political contributions, said he expects the pharmaceutical industry to keep pouring money into defeating the initiative.
"Giving to the tune of $50 million this early in the election cycle ... is certainly a significant sign that the amount of money is going to skyrocket well over that," Bender said.
He said the industry is trying to stamp out this initiative in the hopes of preventing other states from trying a similar tactic.
"If this ballot measure were to win in California, then it would be seen as a model for holding down prescription drugs prices in states across the country," Bender said, adding that it could spur other ballot measures or legislation at the state and federal level.