Informative Leeches Vs. Clueless Talking Heads: Battle Of The Advocacy Ads


In this election year, two drug store associations have launched commercials designed to get Congress to enact reforms regarding Pharmacy Benefit Managers (PBMs) – those price-setting intermediaries between health insurance companies and pharmacies. The business is dominated by three companies: Cigna’s Express Scripts, CVS Caremark and UnitedHealthcare’s Optum RX.

We like the National Community Pharmacists Association (NCPA) spot far better than that of the National Association of Chain Drug Stores (NACDS).

This campaign is aimed at patients,” stated B. Douglas Hoey, chief executive officer, of NCPA, which represents independent pharmacies.  “We want them to let their members of Congress know that PBM reforms must be enacted this year."

The :30 spot, titled “PBM Leeches,” pulls no punches.

“I’m not feeling well. These prescription costs are killing me,” a man tells his doctor. “I’ve been seeing a lot of this lately. Let’s take a look,” says the doc. We next see the man opening his shirt where at least six leeches are feasting.

“Oh, it’s worse than I thought. PBM leeches are sucking you dry,” the doc comments.

At this point, a voiceover takes over, explaining what PBMs are: “PBMs act as parasitic middlemen, inflating the prices you pay for medicine. Don't let drug middlemen drain both you and our healthcare system. Tell Congress to act now and help stop PBMs from leeching onto your wallet.”

The spot ends with the doctor plucking a leech from his patient and saying, as he looks at it, “This is a problem.”

It’s a pretty compelling ad.

Wanting to give proper credit, we asked NCPA if there was a creative agency involved. So kudos to Berman and Company.

Compare that with this :30 spot, titled “Time is Now,” from the NACDS, whose members include Rite-Aid and Walgreens -- but notably not CVS.

This ad, about as exciting as watching C-SPAN, never explains what PBMs are, or what they’re doing to make reforms so necessary.

First, we see a graphic that “Pharmacists are calling for PBM reform now.”

We see people in white jackets carrying signs like “Patients Can’t Wait” and “PBM Reform Now.”

“It’s time to get this done,” says NACDS Chief Executive Officer Steven Andersen at a podium in front of those white jackets. “Let’s pass PBM reform now.”

Sen. Ron Wyden (D- OR) then tells us that “The longer Congress waits, the more families hurt. The hope is really in these white jackets.”

Sen. Mike Crapo (R-ID) speaks next: “Help us deliver the message that this must happen now.”

And one of the white jackets says, “Here’s my message. Patients and pharmacists simply cannot wait any longer.”

We saw no reason to denigrate whoever produced this underwhelming spot by asking if there was an agency involved.

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