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Fact Check: Cunningham Accuses Tillis Of Being Friend Of Big Pharma

U.S. Republican Sen. Thom Tillis debated Democrat Cal Cunningham Sept. 14.

It’s time for a fact check of North Carolina politics. This week we return to the U.S. Senate race between incumbent Republican Thom Tillis and Democrat Cal Cunningham. 


During a debate last week, Cunningham accused Tillis of being a friend of the pharmaceutical industry, saying, “We can almost look no further than Sen. Tillis taking over $400,000 from Big Pharma, and then even blocking his own party’s efforts to reduce the cost of prescription drugs.” He’s also making that claim in political ads.

WRAL’s Paul Specht joins us to assess Cunningham's claims.

Marshall Terry: So, Paul, there are two parts to Cunningham's claim there. Let's start with the first. Did Tillis accept $400,000 from Big Pharma?

Paul Specht: He did. People can look up those totals of how much each candidate received from specific industries by going to opensecrets.org, and they sort out campaign donations like that, which is where we found that $400,000 number for Tillis from the pharmaceutical and health care industry, and that and that's what Cunningham's people pointed us to.

Terry: And what about the other part? Has Tillis blocked his own party's efforts to reduce the cost of prescription drugs as Cunningham claimed?

Specht: This one's a little harder to prove, in part because Cunningham said that Tillis has tried to block "efforts." He didn't use the word "votes." And so "efforts" is a little less tangible. It's hard to tell when someone has, you know, meetings with other senators and persuades them to change the legislation or to block it, even.

But in this particular case, the biggest one that stands out is a bill that ... the Senate is still considering that was introduced by Chuck Grassley. He's a Republican from Iowa and he introduced this with a Democrat from Oregon.

And Grassley has said that he has bipartisan support, but he is waiting on some Republican senators to get on board. And Tillis is one of the Republican senators who has not said that he supports this bill.

Terry: And why does he not support it?

Specht: He says that it hampers innovation. The bill would cap some prescription prices at the rate of inflation. For instance, you have a certain drug that would qualify under this bill, the pharmaceutical industry could not raise it, say, 10% or 30%. They can only raise it at the rate of inflation, which could be more like 2% or 4%, depending on the economy and the market.

And so if you're a pharmaceutical company, you might say, "Hey, we can't make as much money off those drugs and therefore, we can't invest in other drugs as well if our profits are cut, so we can't innovate as much as they might say." Tillis told us that he's still having conversations with Sen. Grassley.

He actually introduced an alternative bill that does not have a cap in place, but the talks are ongoing. This bill is something that Grassley has wanted to pass this year, and as I mentioned, Democrats in the Senate have also said they're wanting to get something done with it, but it is held up at this point.

Terry: Did you reach out to Cunningham about what he meant by his comment?

Terry: We did, and they said that they gave Tillis more credit than we can because it's hard to prove that Tillis is the one lone senator holding things up. Senate leader Mitch McConnell has said that there are multiple senators that have an issue with it, and so we can't pin this just on Tillis. It's going a little too far to say that Tillis alone is blocking this effort, because we just can't prove that.

Terry: So, how do you rate the claim, then?

Specht: We rated this particular claim half true. Cunningham was obviously right about the amount of money that Tillis took. And he's right that there's this big, comprehensive bill on the table that has bipartisan support and Tillis is among the people who's just not there yet, but it's hard to pin it on Tillis and say he's blocking it. There's just not enough evidence to really go that far.

Terry: I want to move now to the race between Gov. Roy Cooper and his Republican challenger, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest. Speaking on a podcast earlier this month, Forest said this:

Roy Cooper Dan Forest
Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest are squaring off in the gubernatorial race.

Dan Forest (recording): All evidence points to the fact that our kids are 17 times more likely to have ill effects from the seasonal flu than they are from coronavirus.

Terry: Forest was talking about his opposition to Cooper's order keeping most schools closed to students full time. Is he right there, what he said about the flu?

Specht: He's not, no. And I think it's important to note off the bat, this is a claim he's made on multiple occasions, but it's not entirely true. What Forest was referring to was a stat in The Wall Street Journal, and they referenced a study that said children are somewhere between six and 17 times more likely to die from the flu.

What Forest has done is take the very top of that stat, cherry picked the "17 times" number and quoted it out of context without the rest of that. In fact, he's also gotten the study wrong in what it deals with. The Wall Street Journal said it deals with deaths. Forest has said that kids are 17 times more likely to have "ill effects." Those are his words. And that sort of downplays the severity of the coronavirus.

Terry: So, how do you rate this claim by Forest?

Specht: We rated it mostly false because this comparison that he's making — the flu to coronavirus — the jury is still out on that. The "17 times" number is not something that is a medical consensus, if you will. It's something that people are still studying, and the flu could be anywhere between six and 17 times worse, but we don't know.

These fact checks are a collaboration between PolitiFact and WRAL. You can hear them Wednesdays on WFAE's Morning Edition.