Pharmaceutical group shifts tone with new pick for president

John J. Castellani is PhRMA's new president.
John J. Castellani is PhRMA's new president. (Mannie Garcia - Bloomberg News)
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By N.C. Aizenman and Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America has tapped a low-key, veteran business lobbyist as its next president, signaling a shift in tone if not approach for one of Washington's most powerful trade groups.

Stylistically, John J. Castellani could not be more different from his predecessor at PhRMA, W.J. "Billy" Tauzin, who helped broker a deal during the health-care debate under which drugmakers will provide discounts that will reduce the nation's pharmaceutical spending by $80 billion over the next 10 years.

Tauzin, a back-slapping former representative of Louisiana nicknamed "the Swamp Fox," resigned from his $2 million-per-year position earlier this year amid reports that PhRMA members had reservations about his shoot-from-the-hip manner.

By contrast, Castellani, who was president and chief executive of the Business Roundtable for the past nine years, has a reputation as an affable but unassuming business insider.

"They've chosen a strong, competent association executive. But what they decided not to do is go for flash," said Dan Mendelson, president of the consulting firm Avalere Health.

Yet both men have demonstrated an ability to transcend partisan divisions.

A founding member of the Blue Dog conservative Democrats, Tauzin infuriated party leaders when he switched to the GOP after the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994. But during his six-year tenure as PhRMA's president, he managed to preserve the goodwill of Democratic lawmakers, and he transformed the organization into a vital ally of Democratic lawmakers on health-care legislation by dedicating more than $150 million to an advertising campaign in support of the overhaul bill.

As head of the Business Roundtable -- an association of chief executives of major U.S. companies -- Castellani has opposed most Democratic legislative initiatives, including the health-care overhaul. But he has managed to do so without alienating adversaries.

"During the health-care debate, some of the larger business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce . . . kept on attacking and attacking and really seemed to have partisan overtones," said Ron Pollack, president of Families USA, an advocacy group that supported the overhaul bill. "John distinguished himself as somebody who would try to be objective and thoughtful. . . . I think he will be a cooperative partner in the process of getting health reform implemented."

Castellani sounded a similar note at a news conference Tuesday.

"My style and PhRMA's style will be to be politically relevant and not partisan," he said. "We're not a rubber stamp for any of the parties. We'll continue to work with members on both sides of the aisle."

But he also suggested that he may push back against aspects of the new law that he finds worrisome, such as the Independent Payment Advisory Board, a soon-to-be-created body that will help control federal spending on health care, which, Castellani said, may have been given "overly broad powers."

Ranked Washington's third-largest lobbying entity in 2009 behind the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Exxon Mobil, PhRMA spends more than $2 million a month on behalf of drug conglomerates such as Pfizer and Merck, and could wield considerable influence on such issues.

Castellani declined to give more specifics, however, stating only that "we're trying to work with Congress to address those concerns."

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