During the Senate Health, Education Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee hearing, Sanders pressed the CEOs of Merck, Johnson & Johnson and Bristol Myers Squibb about why their medicines cost so much more in the U.S. compared to other countries.
“The overwhelming beneficiary of high drug prices in America is the pharmaceutical industry,” Sanders said Thursday. “The United States government does not regulate drug companies. With a few exceptions, the drug companies regulate the United States government.”
The Vermont senator has long criticized pharma companies for their pricing tactics, and in a similar hearing last year extracted a promise of no insulin price hikes from the CEO of Eli Lilly. In another hearing, the CEO of Moderna pledged that nobody would have to pay out pocket for the company’s COVID-19 shot.
But he received no such guarantees from any of the executives testifying Thursday, and the panel’s top Republican said Sanders was wasting people’s time with a show trial.
“I wish this were a genuine exercise. I am willing to do the work, my colleagues are too,” Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) said. “This committee has devolved into CEO whack-a-mole with little to show.”
The CEOs largely stuck to familiar talking points and blamed the U.S. health system — namely third-party pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) — for the substantial differences in list prices.
Larry Levitt, executive vice president for health policy at the research group KFF, said nobody should have realistically expected the CEOs to promise anything.
“I would not expect the CEO of a drug company to stand before Congress and just all of a sudden give up millions of dollars in revenues and profits by committing to lowering prices,” Levitt said, adding the promises from Lilly and Moderna were much narrower in scope than what Sanders was asking Thursday.
The executives acknowledged that list prices have increased, but they countered that revenues have not, and more money is going toward paying rebates to PBMs.
The CEOs admitted their companies were still making profits selling their drugs abroad despite the much lower prices, but all three said patient access to drugs in the U.S. is much easier than in other countries.
“Those drugs mean nothing to anybody who cannot afford it,” Sanders countered.