WASHINGTON — Drug companies, trying desperately to fend off campaign proposals that could batter their bottom lines, are pouring money into Republican and Democratic parties' coffers at an accelerated rate in the feverish final stages of the national race.
Perennial big-money campaign contributors, pharmaceutical companies have in recent months found themselves at the center of one of the presidential campaign's most heated debates. And while both Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush have proposed adding a prescription drug benefit to the Medicare program, their plans would affect the industry in different ways.
The drug companies fear that Gore's Democratic plan could lead to price controls, and they have responded with a flood of additional campaign cash that lifts them from the ranks of mid-level contributors to both parties to near the top of the list of Republican Party donors.
From July through September, the drug companies increased their already sizable campaign contributions by a whopping 73%, bringing their total contributions to the parties to $11.6 million. Almost $9 million of that--or more than three times the amount contributed to Democrats--has gone to the GOP, making them the Republican Party's fourth-most generous industry donor, according to an analysis by the independent Campaign Study Group in Springfield, Va.
It is not unusual for corporations to funnel cash into campaigns late in the game, particularly if issues that affect their businesses are likely to turn on the election. " 'Tis the season," said Larry Makinson, director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington, D.C.-based group that analyzes campaign fund-raising data. "We're basically in the political equivalent of the Christmas shopping season."
However, the scale of the pharmaceutical companies' recent donations is notable.
"That's quite an amazing increase," Makinson said. "There's nothing like being on the ropes to encourage you to dip deeply into your pockets."
In fact, the industry has spent more than $35 million on advertising sponsored by a group it created called Citizens for Better Medicare.
Under the Gore plan, prescription drugs would be part of the government's Medicare program. Since the Medicare program sets fees for every service from doctor visits to hospital treatments, the companies fear that at some point the government would limit its reimbursements to them for drugs.
Under Bush's plan, insurers and HMOs would offer prescription drug coverage to the elderly. Because there would be so many plans, the drug companies would retain much control over the prices.
Most of the drug companies refused to comment in detail on the motivation for their renewed generosity or their preference for one candidate's prescription drug plan.
"As a matter of policy, we don't discuss strategies," said Bill O'Donnell, spokesman for Schering-Plough Corp., which has made $628,500 in largely unregulated "soft money" donations to the GOP.
The industry's views, however, are well known.
"The drug companies have made no secret of the fact that they much prefer the Bush and Republican plans for providing a prescription drug benefit plan for seniors," said Larry Levitt, an analyst for the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan health care think tank. "They've grown increasingly worried that the Gore approach could lead to price controls at some point in the future. They're very worried about the idea of Medicare directly purchasing prescription drugs."
And, as the opinion polls showed the candidates running neck and neck, they pumped more cash into the Republican coffers.
"The prominence of the prescription drug issue has only grown as the campaign has proceeded," Levitt said, adding that the issue could top the agenda of the new Congress. "It makes sense to lay the groundwork for what will likely be a high-stakes congressional debate."
The groundwork leans heavily to the Republican side. Two of the top five corporate and organizational donors to the GOP through September were drug companies, as were six of the party's top 20 contributors.
Among the Democratic Party's top 20 donors, there is not a single pharmaceutical firm.
The industry has also increased dramatically its overall giving. While many corporations have doubled their donations of soft money since 1996, the drug companies have tripled theirs.
"Our level of contributions reflects the importance of this election to our company and our industry," said Andy McCormick, spokesman for Pfizer Inc., which through September had donated $1.24 million to the three federal Republican Party committees, making it the fifth-most generous corporate donor to the GOP for this election. It had donated only $160,000 to the Democrats.
Recent campaign contribution reports also show that the National Rifle Assn., with $1.3 million in contributions, has catapulted to No. 3 among GOP donors.
Labor unions, meanwhile, remained the Democratic Party's top donors, with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees heading the list with $4.1 million in contributions.
The Republicans' top donor is tobacco giant Philip Morris, with $1.8 million in contributions.
While the latest figures include campaign contributions only through Sept. 30, this new analysis provides the most accurate assessment to date of who is paying for next month's elections. These huge checks help fuel the ad war dominating the airwaves across the country during this richest-ever campaign season.
Through Sept. 30, the Republicans had raised a total of $438 million for this year's elections, compared with $308 million collected by the Democrats.
Times staff writer Alissa J. Rubin contributed to this story.