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Pharmaceuticals' Price, Politics & Proxies

AP

The cost of drugs was a hot topic at ASCO this year, especially with the release of the big test results combining two very expensive treatments for lung cancer. The study showed using Avastin from Roche and Genentech and a pill, Tarceva, from OSI Pharmaceuticals, Roche and Genentech slowed down progression of the disease by a little more than a month.

We haven't seen yet whether the duo extends patients' lives, but the tens of thousands of dollars it would cost just to keep the cancer from getting worse for four-plus weeks is already sparking debate.

As the healthcare reform fight begins in Washington, biopharma companies have been lobbying and trying to improve their public image. Pfizer , for example, recently announced it'll give free drugs to the unemployed.

But is the industry trying to raise the profile of its philanthropy ahead of the public realization that healthcare reform might not be the negative some investors fear it could be?

A few months ago in an interview with me on CNBC, Billy Tauzin, the head of PhRMA, the industry's voice in Washington, asserted that taking care of the tens of millions of uninsured could benefit the drugmakers and public health. He said the companies would make up in volume what they might lose on price and benefit from more people staying on prescription drugs over time.

But when a prominent publication recently quoted one healthcare analyst with a multi-billion dollar estimate on the healthcare reform benefit to the drugmakers, there was a backlash. The analyst told me two major companies, lawmakers and PhRMA placed calls and/or sent emails telling the analyst the numbers were too high. The analyst said the full-court press only raised suspicion in the analyst's mind that the estimate might be too low.

Some companies go about offering free drugs a little more on the down low. Deutsche Bank biotech analyst Mark Schoenebaum today put out a research note to clients saying BIIB has been giving away more Tysabri as the ranks of the jobless swells.

I'm not sure how that fact will sit with Carl Icahn who hasn't been very happy about Tysabri sales. Tomorrow he is once again trying to get his people on the BIIB Board of Directors at the company's annual shareholder meeting.

I'll be reporting from the meeting in Cambridge, MA on Wednesday.

Questions? Comments? Pharma@cnbc.com and follow me on Twitter at mhuckman