A burning (speaking) platform

Two weeks ago, Pfizer announced that we are acquiring Wyeth and creating what we believe will be the world’s premier biopharmaceutical company. We are very excited about the opportunities this will give us to better address unmet medical needs across the globe.

But, unfortunately, to compete successfully, we also have to lay off nearly 20,000 people from the combined company. Sadly, we are not alone. This past Friday, we learned that 600,000 people lost their jobs in just the last month.

Twelve million people are now out of work in this country. They and countless others that do have jobs are living with real fears about how they will pay the bills, whether they can hold on to their homes, and what happens if someone in their family gets sick. They’re scared and they’re angry.

The platform is on fire.

Many of them blame people like some of us in this room — the men and women who work in America’s big companies. They look at us and see greed and selfishness. Many believe the very system of capitalism has failed them. To state the obvious: much of the American public has lost confidence in American business.

Now he’s got the audience on the burning platform.

Regrettably, this is not a new experience for people like me or others in the biopharmaceutical industry. A belief that our prices are too high, that we run misleading advertising and that we care more about playing golf with doctors than about helping them understand our medicines — all of this has earned our industry a reputation near the bottom of all American institutions.

Think he’s got their attention at this point?

We’re not alone anymore. Along with the financial industry, automakers, energy companies, mortage lenders, and lots of others, we have to earn back a lot of trust. If we fail, then the real and legitimate anger that so many of us are feeling could lead to policy changes that could damage American competitiveness and put our country’s long-term prosperity at risk.

It will take a lot of time, energy and change to turn this around, so we have to get to work. The best way to start is by letting people know “we hear you” and “we get it.” We need to acknowledge where we’ve gone wrong, that we’re making real changes and that we are able and willing to work with policymakers to address our country’s most urgent problems.

For millions of Americans, one of the most urgent such problems is health care, and that’s what I’d like to talk to you about tonight.

When you’ve got something this urgent to communicate, throat-clearing is unnecessary, humor is inappropriate and Lincoln quotes are superfluous. We’ve got our own national crisis — and Kindler isn’t minimizing it.

Next, he goes into what he acknowledges is a “familiar” recitation of the health care problems in the U.S. But just when you think the speech is going to slide into a wonky series of recommendations for health care reform, Kindler says this:

In a strange way, there’s good news here. The system has gotten so bad and the need for reform so clear, that we just might have a unique opportunity to fix it. In fact, for the first time in decades, there is broad agreement across the political spectrum and the private sector on many elements of reform and on the urgency to act.

So I’d like to share some thoughts on how I see this playing out over the next year and how my industry can play a constructive role in advancing reform. But, as I said, until our industry starts to regain the public’s trust, our standing to make positive contributions to the reform effort is limited.

Have you ever heard a CEO say he has good ideas but acknowledge that no one will listen to those ideas until he reforms his organization? We haven’t, and we’ll bet most of the audience at the Economic Club of Chicago hadn’t either.

So I’d like to first tell you a bit about some of the changes we’re making. Let’s start with the basics. We need to be straight and open with people. No one has any tolerance for corporate spin. So, at our company, we’re disclosing more information than ever, from the progress our researchers are making, to the results of more than 1,000 clinical trials of experimental new medicines, to the outcomes of follow-on studies of medicines that are already on the market. You can get all of that information on the Web.

In fact, earlier today we announced that we’ll begin disclosing how we compensate doctors outside our company — doctors who do important work to ensure that medicines meet the needs of patients and health care providers alike. We’re not the first company to do this, but we are disclosing more information than any others.

Our industry is also reforming the ads you see on TV. We’re enforcing meaningful standards to clarify roles and responsibilities of our advertising spokespeople, to ensure that ads meant only for adults are show only at appropriate times of the day, and to make sure that our ads provide a balanced presentation of both a medicine’s risks and its benefits. In addition, we now launch consumer advertising only after the new medicines have been on the market for six months, so that doctors can gain experience with new medicines before they become widely known by patients. This is something doctors have asked us to do.

We’re also responding to the criticisms of the way our salespeople interact with doctors. The golf trips are long gone. No more fancy dinners, or tchotchkes left all over the doctor’s office. Fewer representatives in the waiting room, more training, and an even greater focus on providing up-to-date, accurate information about the medicines physicians prescribe.

Meanwhile, we’re continuing and expanding our work for people who cannot afford our medicines. …

The only quarrel we have with all these specifics is that the speech falls one small step short of making an important general statement, about how and why and when it went so far astray as to make all the above reforms necessary. (No, we are not ever satisfied.)

In addition to changes like these, we have adopted a new approach to legislation and public policy, with an emphasis on actively supporting appropriate reforms, rather than simply trying to stop things we don’t agree with. … In Congress, we’re also advocating for a stronger Food and Drug Administration — one that’s better funded and shielded from the political influence that has gotten its way in recent years.

How many businesses do you know that want a stronger regulator? We do, because it will give patients greater confidence that the medicines they take have been thoroughly reviewed by independent scientists for safety and efficacy. …

Watch out, Kindler, you’re getting dangerously close to boasting of enlightenment, only minutes after acknowledging the need to acquire a leg to stand on. The rest of the speech, is given over to a too-detailed-for-our-taste description of Kindler’s recommendations for health care reform. Save it for a white paper.

But toward the end, Kindler wisely concludes by quoting the president from whom he is seeking help.

It’s difficult to imagine a more complex area of politics and public policy than health care. Reforming our health care system will be very hard as we face some extremely tough questions. Will the economic crisis that we’re experiencing enable health care reform to advance, or prevent it? Is there enough political will to expand coverage to people that don’t have it, even if that means making investments that will only pay off over time — just as we are facing an exploding budget deficit?

Right now, it’s hard to say which way these questions will go, and I have to tell you that I’m a little less optimistic than I was even a month or two ago. But I believe an economic imperative and a unique political opportunity have come together to create a moment where health care reform can actually succeed.

As President Obama has said: “Health care reform has to be intimately woven into our overall economic recovery plan. It’s not something that we can put off because we are in an emergency. This is part of the emergency.”

And with this speech, Pfizer CEO Jeff Kindler went a long way toward positioning his company as part of the solution. TIE will follow Kindler closely. We also expect to cover and critique other speeches inspired by the current burning platform.


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