A Hatchet Job on Health Care Advocates

The American Journal of Public Health published yesterday an article examining the relationships between health advocacy organizations and the pharmaceutical industry. The following is my response to the author:

I am writing to express my complete and utter disappointment with your article “Efforts to Undermine Public Health” which examines the relationships between health advocacy organizations and the pharmaceutical industry. I’ve worked with many non-profit health organizations over the last twenty years – several of whom are named in your article – and take great exception to your characterization of their relationships with pharmaceutical companies.

Given the nature and scope of our health care system, it is inevitable that health advocacy organizations and pharmaceutical companies have overlapping and shared interests. That a company would choose to fund initiatives in alignment with their business interests is also inevitable, and not surprising; would you expect Halliburton or General Motors to fund a cardiac health awareness campaign? And while I agree that disclosure of these relationships is beneficial, their mere presence does not constitute de facto “conflict of interest” or “biases” as your article strongly implies.

In the 1990s I served as the National Director of Advocacy for the American Diabetes Association. At the time, insurance companies routinely denied patients coverage for necessary diabetes supplies – insulin, meters, testing strips and syringes. To address this problem, the Association launched a nationwide advocacy campaign to enact laws to require coverage for these items. This campaign was supported, in small part, through the sponsorship and technical support of Eli Lilly and other companies.

As a result of our efforts, nearly 40 states enacted laws requiring coverage of these items; Congress also enacted a law that required Medicare to improve its coverage for these medical supplies. Did our corporate partners benefit from the enactment of these laws? Most assuredly. But the real winners in this campaign were the millions of Americans affected by diabetes who, prior to the laws enactment, were unable to obtain these necessary medical supplies and effectively manage their condition.

This was made clear to me one morning during a summer vacation in Maine. Seated at a small town lunch counter, a woman overheard my conversation and approached me. “Were you involved with the diabetes campaign here in Maine?” she asked. I responded yes and she said that for the first time, her elderly father could now obtain the test strips and insulin he needed to effectively manage his type 2 diabetes. “Thank you,” she said, almost in tears. “You have no idea how much this has changed our lives.”

That conversation took place more than a dozen years ago, but I still remember it vividly. It reinforced to me why we launched our campaign, and the positive impact we could have on people’s lives. That is what health advocacy organizations do, on a daily basis. Your article not only discredits that honorable work, but demonstrates a stunning lack of understanding about their missions, the who work there, their millions of committed volunteers and the needs of the people they represent.

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2 Responses

  1. I agree. It is a shame that the media often feels that it needs to resort to innuendo and suggestion to sell copies.

    The unsaid (but, I would suggest clearly intended) suggestion is that the named advocacy groups and others are the “pawns” of the pharmaceutical industry. From my experiencing with advocacy groups, nothing could be farther from the truth. For further thoughts and an example of the benefit of the relationship between pharmaceutical and advocate, please see http://boxcuttersinc.wordpress.com/2011/01/14/drug-firms-fund-health-advocacy-groups/

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by ACEC/PA and Rick Winiker. Rick Winiker said: Hatchet Job on Health Care Advocates http://t.co/bqgg3Oo – my friend -a public health advocate-responds to Amer. Journal of Pub. Health #in […]

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