A Senate committee hearing on the price of prescription drugs turned into a disagreement on the value of capitalism in the field of medicine and drug development.
Drug company CEOs were in the hot seat during the Feb. 8 hearing, as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) attempted to pin down the reason for high drug costs and obtain commitments to lower the cost of the medications.
In the course of a hearing held by the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, Mr. Sanders questioned the chief executive officers of Merck, Johnson & Johnson, and Bristol Myers Squibb regarding the reasons for the much higher prices of their pharmaceuticals in the United States in comparison with other countries.
Eliquis, a blood thinner manufactured by Bristol Myers Squib; Keytruda, a cancer therapy manufactured by Merck; and Stelara, an arthritis medication manufactured by Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson, were among the medications that he concentrated on specifically.
The senator from Vermont has been critical of the pricing strategies employed by pharmaceutical companies for some time, something he pointed out during the hearing.
Despite pressing the panel, he did not receive any assurances about lowering or halting the increase of drug prices from any of the executives who testified.
The CEOs, in response to queries posed by Mr. Sanders and other Democrats, kept mostly to established themes that blamed the health care system in the United States for the significant variations in list prices across the healthcare industry.
While acknowledging that list prices have gone up, the executives argued that revenues have not increased and that a larger portion of the money is now being paid to pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) as rebates.
“Will you commit today at Bristol Myers Squibb to reduce the list price of Eliquis in the United States to the price that you charge in Canada, where you make a profit?” Mr. Sanders asked Chris Boerner, CEO of Bristol Myers Squib.
“Senator, we can’t make that commitment primarily because the prices in these two countries have very different systems,” Mr. Boerner responded, adding that the company has paid “billions of dollars in rebates” to intermediates that “unfortunately do not go to lowering the price of medicines.”
For his part, the ranking Republican on the panel, Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), stated that Mr. Sanders was wasting people’s time by conducting a show trial.
“I wish this were a genuine exercise. I am willing to do the work; my colleagues are too,” Mr. Cassidy said. “This committee has devolved into CEO whack-a-mole with little to show … if this is just to get social media clips of members taking it to a quote-unquote greedy CEO, then I suppose that is what some people want to accomplish.
“I understand the chair wishes to have Medicare-for-all, and will cherry-pick examples of how other countries are doing something better than we are. I could cherry-pick the opposite.
Mr. Cassidy pointed to Canada, saying that they are “struggling” with “specialty care,” and asserted that last year the Canadian government started sending citizens to Washington State to “ensure people have faster access to life-saving radiation treatment.” They can afford their system because our system is right next door.”
The lawmaker, along with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), pointed out in their comments that while the United States does pay more for drugs, they also have access to medications that are not readily available in other countries.
In addition to this being demonstrated by examples of individuals who come to the United States to pay for treatments out of pocket, the CEOs reiterated that their revenues are used to support the research and development of innovative treatments.