City Council ends 2018 with legislation rush, but leaves key bills held

Pat Loeb
December 13, 2018 - 9:14 pm

Pat Loeb/KYW Newsradio


PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) -- Philadelphia City Council passed more than 40 bills at its final session of 2018, Thursday, but the greatest friction revolved around two bills that it left on the table.

One of the measures would have regulated pharmaceutical sales representatives; another would have approved the sale of a city-owned property in West Philadelphia for development as a health campus.

The pharmaceutical sales bill was held after weeks of intense lobbying by the industry, with help from the Convention and Visitors Center and even local restaurants, and over the pleas of parents who lost children to drug overdoses.

"This bill not only exposes an industry that needs to be scrutinized, it tells me about our priorities," said co-sponsor Cindy Bass. "The only conclusion to be reached is that there is a placement of big business far above the interests and needs of our most vulnerable communities."

The bill would require drug salespeople to register with the city and submit materials they intended to distribute, wear ID when making calls and would prohibit giving free samples or gifts, including meals, to doctors.

Bass and co-sponsor Bill Greenlee said the bill was a response to the current opioid epidemic, fueled by the over prescription of painkillers by physicians influenced by drug sales reps, and was intended to prevent a future addiction crisis that might be caused by drugs not yet known.

Elise Schiller testified before the bill was held that her daughter had become addicted after taking painkillers for injuries she suffered as an athlete. She died of an overdose in 2014.

"This is not about denying drugs to people with acute pain," Schiller said. "This is not about destroying Philadelphia's business community. This is about preventing prescribers from having undue influence. It is as human as it can be for someone who's been gifted to feel a sense of reciprocity and that is not okay when we are losing lives the way we are."

Julie Coker Graham, of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau, though, testified that the bill would cost the city convention business.

"The convention center has hosted 110 life sciences meetings," Graham said. "Those meetings brought in 65,000 overnight visitors. These visitors generated $9 million in taxes and had an overall economic impact of $91 million."

READ: Philly man convicted of murder is spared of mandatory life in prison

Greenlee expressed both surprise and dismay when he announced he would hold the bill.

"We thought it was an easy issue," he said. "In fact, I called it a 'no brainer' and I still believe that. This bill just basically calls for pharmaceutical reps to register so we know who they are, to know what materials they're distributing-- not to approve, to know-- and ban gifts from those sales reps to doctors because studies have shown that prescriptions increase significantly in relation to the gifts being given. But we made a horrible mistake: We believed this issue would be discussed with facts and truth. Unfortunately, the discussion has been fraught with misinformation-- a.k.a. lies-- bullying and semi-hysteria, sometimes without the semi."

He cited letters from restaurateurs who said they would lose thousands of dollars in business if pharmaceutical reps couldn't take doctors to lunch.

"This is intriguing because we heard in meetings that the most these sales reps do, they might buy a sandwich," he said. "No big deal, who's going to be influenced by a ham sandwich. Well, Maggiano's and Estia and the places we got letters from, they ain't selling ham sandwiches."

Nonetheless, he threw in the towel.

"Sadly, ‘Big Pharma's’ strategy to threaten, to muddy the waters, to throw whatever stuff they could against the wall and hope some stuck, has had some success," he said, saying even the Kenney administration, at whose request they introduced the bill had backpedaled.

"But we are not giving up,” he said. “This bill is a necessary piece of the fight."

The reasons for holding up the sale of 4601 Market Street were less clear. Sponsor Jannie Blackwell said she didn't think the administration had provided enough information to the community.

That drew a stinging response from Mayor Kenney who said in a statement, "It is unfortunate for her own constituents, because it would have brought health care for adults, children and families to West Philadelphia. It would have brought a workforce development program and summer youth programming. It would have brought an early childhood education center and a family fitness center.  It would have brought a community garden and community meeting space. And most importantly, it would have brought hundreds of jobs to a community that very much needs new employment opportunities. Now, all of that evaporates, and leaves the community only with what it has had for many years – a vacant building."

The previous administration purchased the building, intending to make it a new police headquarters, but Kenney found that plan unworkable and opted to sell the 13 acre property, despite the city's previous investment of some $50 million in renovations.

Councilman Allan Domb says the loss was "unacceptable."

"We answer to residents and businesses," he said. “They have trusted us to manage their hard earned dollars. In this case, we have failed them.”

READ: Pa. battles opioid overdose by giving away thousands of NARCAN kits

But Kenney's statement disputed that.

"Yes, the City has spent $52 million on the property, and yes, it was to receive $10 million back in the sale," he said. “However, the City would have received an estimated $158 million in additional revenue over the next 20 years. It would have received property taxes and business receipts taxes from the developer that it would not have received under the old deal. It would have received new sales tax revenue from the businesses that locate in the development. Consolidating public safety operations will free up city properties for sale. Even considering debt service, the City would have ended up an estimated $40 million ahead with this deal.”

Both bills may come up again when council returns in the New Year.

Among the bills council did pass before recessing:

  • A measure that raises standards for lead paint remediation in schools
  • Bills that tighten requirements for rental and commercial licenses and require greater transparency for property owners who operate as LLC's
  • A measure requiring developers seeking tax breaks through the Keystone Opportunity Zone program to provide plans for hiring graduates of the School District's technical schools
  • A bill allowing homeowners who appeal their assessments to postpone paying real estate taxes until the appeal is decided
  • A bill that would extend the period for which businesses could carry operating losses in calculating their business taxes, if the state passes companion legislation