During a Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday, Sen. Bernie Sanders said he opposes the nomination of Dr. Robert Califf to be commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) because of his deep financial ties to the pharmaceutical industry. As Sanders questioned the president’s nominee, Dr. Califf revealed he has no intention of fighting to lower the cost of prescription drugs or import cheaper brand name medication from other countries.
While the top three pharmaceutical companies made a combined $45 billion in profits last year, one in five Americans – 35 million people – were unable to afford to fill their prescriptions. Instead of focusing on research and development, these corporations spent more on sales and marketing while increasing drug prices over 1,000%.
“I think it is not a coincidence that last year the pharmaceutical industry spent $250 million on lobbying and campaign contributions and employ some 1,400 lobbyists. Do you think, Dr. Califf, that type of expenditure has any impact on the fact that we pay the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs?” Sanders asked.
Neglecting to answer Sanders’ questions directly, Califf evasively responded with pipe dreams involving ideal situations instead of tackling the nation’s current dilemmas. Since 2002, total spending on medicine in the U.S. has risen by more than 90%. In August, Turing Pharmaceuticals CEO Martin Shkreli raised the price of Daraprim from $13.50 to $750 per pill, an increase of 5,500%.
“In other words, you think we can bring in fish products and vegetables from farms all over the world, but we cannot bring from across the Canadian border brand name drugs. You don’t think we have the capability of doing that?” Sanders questioned Califf.
“We have the capability,” Califf responded. “It would add additional cost, and systems would have to be put in place to make it work.”
“Well, this is why precisely the American people are paying by far the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs,” asserted Sanders. “It is beyond my comprehension that you’re sitting here saying we can bring in vegetables and fish from all over the world, but we cannot bring in brand name drugs manufactured by the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world from a country like Canada. I just do not accept that.”
Although Califf has deeper ties to the pharmaceutical industry than any FDA commissioner in recent history, President Obama nominated him in September. From at least 2009 to 2014, Califf worked as a paid consultant for numerous pharmaceutical companies, including Eli Lilly, Amgen, Merck, AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, Sanofi-Aventis, and Bristol-Myers Squibb. Califf also ran a multimillion-dollar research center at Duke University that received over 60% of its funding from the pharmaceutical industry.
“At the end of the day people are dying and not buying the food they need because they have to pay outrageous prices for medicine,” Sanders told Califf. “We have been extraordinarily weak at taking on the pharmaceutical industry that has been ripping off the American people. I believe we need a commissioner who is going to stand up to the pharmaceutical industry and protect American consumers. You are not that person.”
In September, Sanders and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Ranking Member Elijah Cummings introduced legislation to address skyrocketing increases in prescription drug prices. Last month, Sanders refused to accept a campaign donation from Turing Pharmaceuticals CEO Martin Shkreli.