Wyoming senators reap largesse from biotechnology firm Amgen

By Rone Tempest
January 29, 2013

A California biotechnology company set to benefit by millions of dollars from a last-minute addition to the January 1 “Fiscal Cliff” bill is among the top campaign contributors to Wyoming U.S. Senators Mike Enzi and John Barrasso.

Both senators were among the 89-8 majority voting for the complex 154-page American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 bill that was presented to most members only three minutes before the formal vote. Enzi and Barrasso declined to respond to WyoFile questions about the controversial Section 632 in the bill that benefits Amgen Inc., the world’s largest biotech firm, and other makers of oral kidney dialysis medications.

Sen. John Barrasso (photo courtesy U.S. Senate – click to enlarge)
Sen. John Barrasso (photo courtesy U.S. Senate – click to enlarge)

A spokesperson for the Thousand Oaks, Ca., based corporation told WyoFile “Amgen did not contact either Wyoming senator regarding the 632 provision.”

Federal election records show that since 2006, Amgen has contributed $44,500 to Enzi’s campaign fund and his Making Business Excel leadership PAC. Over the same period only two other corporations — Blue Cross/Blue Shield and Abbott Laboratories — gave more to Enzi, ranking Republican on the Senate Health, Education & Pensions Committee and a senior member of the Finance Committee.

Since June 2007 when he was appointed to office, Amgen has given Barrasso and his Common Values leadership PAC $30,000, federal records show.

A former Casper orthopedic surgeon who receives much of his campaign funding from health-related industries, Barrasso is scheduled to be the honoree at a $1,500-a-plate breakfast fundraiser in Washington on February 26 hosted by Amgen lobbyist Helen Rhee and Raissa Downs, founding partner in the Tarplin, Downs & Young lobby firm that works extensively for Amgen.

Downs was a staff advisor to Enzi in 2001-2002.

First detailed in a January 19 report by the New York Times, Section 632 grants a two year delay in putting Medicare price restraints on a class of oral End Stage Renal Disease (ESRD) products, including Amgen’s lucrative pill, “Sensipar,” often prescribed to kidney dialysis patients.

Other companies that produce similar products also will benefit from the provision, notably Genzyme Corp., which markets Renagel, Shire PC and its drug Fosrenal, and Fresenius Medical Care AG, which markets PhosLo and Phoslyra. But the Times reported that Amgen was “the only company to argue aggressively for the delay,” which the newspaper projected would cost Medicare an additional $500 million over the two-year period.

Amgen Global Communication Director Kelley Davenport disputed the newspaper account, saying that the provision was the result of a “year-long discussion between the federal government and the nephrology [kidney specialty] community on this issue” and was supported by several government studies.

Sen. Mike Enzi (Click to enlarge)

“The New York Times article was misleading by concluding that the provision was a ‘gift’ to our company without understanding the complexities associated with Medicare dialysis care and the potential harm to patients if the provision had not been included,” Davenport said in an email exchange with WyoFile.

The Times traced the origins of the inserted Section 632 to the Senate Finance Committee: its Chairman, Montana Democrat Max Baucus, its ranking member, Utah Republican Orrin G. Hatch, and Amgen lobbyists formerly on the staffs of Baucus and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Baucus, Hatch and McConnell have all received sizeable political contributions from Amgen in recent years.

Enzi and Barrasso are also among a group of U.S. senators from both political parties who have been targeted by Amgen’s extensive lobbying efforts and who have received significant campaign contributions from the corporation. Amgen employs or retains 74 lobbyists and annually spends $10 million on lobby efforts in the Capitol, according to the Washington Center for Responsive Politics that tracks political spending and lobbying.

As with all contributions to his political funds, the Amgen gifts also benefit Enzi’s extended family. His daughter-in-law Danielle Enzi works from her Cheyenne home as his official fundraiser, and, in addition to her retainer, regularly receives commissions on campaign receipts. In fiscal year 2010-2011, for example, federal records show she received $70,910 in retainers and commissions. For 2011-2012, the senator paid her a $10,000 “performance” bonus.

Details of the insertion of Section 632 into the Fiscal Cliff bill have prompted angry responses in Washington from health policy makers as well as other members of Congress.

“Lawmakers and lobbyists once again placed their financial interests ahead of patient safety and Medicare solvency, passing the cost of such decisions on to the taxpayer,” commented Dennis J. Cotter, a Washington health policy expert who specializes in dialysis drugs.

On January 23, Vermont Democratic Congressman Peter Welch and a bi-partisan group of U.S. lawmakers introduced legislation to eliminate the Medicare price exemption from the Fiscal Cliff bill.

“Amgen managed to get a $500 million paragraph in the fiscal cliff bill, and virtually no one in Congress was aware of it,” Welch told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s a taxpayer rip-off and comes at a really bad time when we’re trying to control healthcare costs. Amgen should not be allowed to turn Medicare into a profit center.”

Both Enzi and Barrasso declined to respond to WyoFile questions.

Both senators were asked if they were aware that Section 632 of the “Fiscal Cliff” bill contained a provision directly benefitting Amgen and if they or any members of their staffs had been contacted by Amgen representatives or lobbyists when they voted for the bill.

Enzi was also asked as a member of the Finance Committee and ranking member of the Health Committee if he or any members of his staff were aware of negotiations over the language of Section 632. Enzi declined to respond to WyoFile questions.

In emails directed to his press staffers Emily Lawrimore and Laura Mengelkamp, Barrasso was also asked if they were aware that two of his hosts at the February 26 fundraiser in Washington were Amgen lobbyists.

As he has in the past, including when he was contacted by former Washington Post reporter John Lancaster for a long profile piece for WyoFile, Barrasso did not respond to WyoFile queries.

— A former national and foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, Rone Tempest covered wars, natural disasters, politics and culture on six continents. In 2004 he was part of a team of reporters to win the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the massive wildfires in Southern California. Rone lives in Lander, Wyoming.

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Rone Tempest

Rone Tempest was a longtime national and foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. In 2004 he was part of a team of reporters to win the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the massive wildfires in Southern...

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