January 6, 2016
By Amanda Garrett
Beacon Journal staff writer
Members of a group that wants Ohioans to vote on prescription drug price controls sued Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted on Wednesday and asked a judge to clear its path toward the November ballot.
Ohioans for Fair Drug Prices believes Husted, at the behest of big pharmaceutical companies, is trying to thwart its ballot initiative, said Michael Weinstein, president of the California-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation, the group spearheading the effort.
Husted’s office said it’s just trying to follow the law.
In limbo is the proposed Ohio Drug Price Relief Act.
Ohioans for Fair Drug Prices wants voters to limit what the state pays for prescription drugs. An identical measure, also backed by Weinstein’s group, has already secured a place on California’s November ballot.
If passed, the laws would prevent Ohio and California from purchasing or selling drugs at prices higher than the discounted rates negotiated and paid by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, prices which can be 20 to 40 percent lower than what other groups pay.
Health care watchers have said the laws, if passed, could have ripple effects across the nation, possibly lowering the cost of drugs for all consumers.
But the pharmaceutical industry, which appears to be gearing up against both the Ohio and California measures, has warned there could be negative consequences. Lower prices, for example, mean companies will have less money to pour into research and development of new drugs consumers need.
At issue in the lawsuit are petitions Ohioans for Fair Drug Prices circulated to get the measure on the ballot. The group needs 91,677 signatures of Ohio registered voters and it’s up to Husted’s office to verify the signatures.
On Dec. 22, Ohioans for Fair Drug Prices said it submitted 171,205 signatures to Husted’s office for review.
Husted’s office, following protocol, said it forwarded the petitions to boards of election in each of Ohio’s 88 counties where local officials could cross-check the signatures against voter rolls.
At year’s end, Ohioans for Fair Drug Prices declared victory. In the lawsuit, it said boards of election reported finding 119,031 valid signatures on the petitions, 27,354 more than needed to make the ballot.
Husted, however, never certified those signatures, his spokesman, Joshua Eck, said Wednesday. And before he could, Husted received a four-page letter Dec. 30 from a Columbus law firm representing Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.
In the letter, lawyers from Bricker & Eckler pointed out potential problems with the petitions.
Signatures of people had been crossed out by what appeared to be the same black marker, for example. Under Ohio law, only the voter who signs a petition or the person circulating the petition is allowed to cross out a name.
The same marker appeared to be used on petitions from across the state, the lawyers pointed out.
On Jan. 4, instead of forwarding the Ohio Drug Price Relief Act to the Ohio General Assembly, its next stop on the way to the ballot, Husted sent back the petitions to the boards of election for a second review.
“We’re doing due diligence now,” Eck said Wednesday. No decisions have been made yet about whether to certify the signatures or not. “Anyone against due diligence … you have to question their motives.”
Weinstein said the second review is senseless because no one was trying to game the system by adding signatures. Ohioans for Fair Drug Prices was removing signatures that appeared invalid.
His group moved forward with litigation with the Ohio Supreme Court, he said, because it fears Husted’s review process could drag on so long, it could prevent them from making the ballot if more signatures are needed.
“I don’t know what other dirty tricks are going to be played,” Weinstein said. “But we’re ready.”
Amanda Garrett can be reached at 330-996-3725 or [email protected].