In a recent Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing, Senator Bernie Sanders took pharmaceutical industry leaders to task over the stark disparities in drug pricing between the United States and other countries. Sanders highlighted the issue of high drug prices in the U.S., questioning why Americans pay significantly more for the same medications that are available for less in nations like Japan and Canada.
During the hearing, the CEOs of major pharmaceutical companies, including Merck and Bristol Myers Squibb, were directly asked by Sanders if they would commit to aligning the U.S. list prices of their top-selling drugs with the lower prices found in other countries. Despite acknowledging that their companies remain profitable in markets with lower drug prices, both CEOs refrained from making any commitments to reduce prices in the U.S.
The refusal of the pharmaceutical executives to lower U.S. drug prices despite Sanders’ pressing questions underscored the ongoing debate about drug affordability in the United States. Sanders pointed out the contradiction in the executives’ stance, noting, “those drugs mean nothing to anybody who cannot afford it,” emphasizing the life-or-death implications of drug pricing policies.
Sanders also challenged Bristol Myers Squibb CEO Chris Boerner’s claim that drugs are cheaper in Canada due to restricted availability, countering with the fact that life expectancy in Canada surpasses that in the U.S. by six years, suggesting broader access to healthcare and medications.
Senator Sanders has long advocated for making lifesaving medications accessible to all, regardless of financial status. He criticized the pharmaceutical industry for producing essential drugs that many Americans cannot afford, thus nullifying their potential benefits. Sanders’ opening remarks set the tone for a hearing centered on reconciling the need for pharmaceutical innovation with the imperative of drug affordability.
The hearing featured testimonies from three pharmaceutical CEOs: Chris Boerner of Bristol Myers Squibb, Robert Davis of Merck, and Joaquin Duato of Johnson & Johnson. Initially resistant, Davis and Duato agreed to testify only after Sanders hinted at the possibility of issuing subpoenas, showcasing the tense atmosphere surrounding the discussion of drug pricing reforms.
Amidst the scrutiny of their pricing strategies, the pharmaceutical companies represented at the hearing are also engaged in legal efforts to dismantle the Medicare price negotiation program established by the Inflation Reduction Act. This legal battle signifies the industry’s resistance to regulatory measures aimed at curbing drug prices through government intervention.
Sanders highlighted the distressing trend of Americans turning to crowdfunding platforms like GoFundMe to afford their medications, pointing to the platform’s statement that “thousands of individuals in need use GoFundMe each month to raise funds for lifesaving prescription drugs.” He shared the poignant story of Rebecca, a Nebraska school lunch lady who succumbed to cancer after her GoFundMe campaign fell short of covering the exorbitant cost of Keytruda, a cancer drug priced at $191,000 a year in the U.S.
In their defense, the CEOs attributed the high list prices in the U.S. to the structure of the American health system and the role of pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs), who they claim absorb a significant portion of drug revenues through rebates. This blame-shifting to PBMs underscores the complexity of the U.S. drug pricing ecosystem and the challenges in achieving price transparency and reduction.
The hearing revealed a partisan divide on the committee, with Republicans accusing Sanders of conducting a theatrical exercise rather than a substantive inquiry into drug pricing. Despite the polarized responses, the hearing underscored the critical need for Congressional action to address the systemic factors contributing to high drug prices in the U.S.
“We are aware of the many important, lifesaving drugs that your companies have produced,” Sanders acknowledged. “And that’s extraordinarily important.”