The CEOs of three major pharmaceutical companies appeared before the Senate health committee on Thursday to defend how much they charge for drugs in the United States, leading them into further confrontation with lawmakers and the Biden administration over the cost of some of the drugs. the most widely used prescription drugs.
The three executives testifying — Johnson & Johnson’s Joaquin Duato, Merck’s Robert M. Davis and Bristol Myers Squibb’s Christopher Boerner — are expected to clash with the health committee’s chairman, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent who has reins in drugs. Times is a characteristic speech for the last years of his career in Congress.
Mr. Sanders focused the hearing on why drug prices are higher in the United States than in other rich countries. His staff has singled out several widely used drugs, including Eliquis, a blood thinner from Bristol Myers Squibb, and Januvia, a diabetes drug from Merck, that can be bought for much less in Canada and Europe than in United States.
Pharmacists are “doing incredibly well while Americans can’t afford the cost of the drugs they need,” Mr. Sanders said in his opening statement, adding that “the overwhelming beneficiary of these high drug prices is the pharmaceutical industry.” .
The hearing comes as a new federal program authorizing Medicare to negotiate the prices of some costly drugs is underway. Federal health officials last week made their initial offers to the makers of the first 10 drugs selected for negotiations, a list that includes Eliquis and Januvia.
Five of the 10 drugs selected for price talks are made by the companies whose executives are testifying Thursday. Drug makers, including all three companies that will be represented at the hearing, have filed a flurry of lawsuits arguing that the bargaining program is unconstitutional.
Mr. Sanders accused drug company executives of profiting unfairly from popular drugs at the expense of Americans struggling to pay for prescriptions. He has suggested that companies use the drugs to enrich their top executives and shareholders.
Two of the pharmaceutical executives, Mr. Duato of Johnson & Johnson and Mr. Davis of Merck, agreed to testify after being threatened with subpoena. Mr. Sanders had planned to hold a committee vote last week on whether to issue them, but officials agreed to appear at the hearing before such a vote took place. The two companies indicated last month that Mr. Sanders was seeking revenge for lawsuits they had filed challenging Medicare’s price negotiation program.
In his opening statement, Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, the top Republican on the committee, said the committee’s strategy was to “threaten a subpoena when CEOs are suspected of not getting a fair shake, holding a hearing, taking audio , then select another set of CEOs for a test presentation.”
“But we’re not passing substantive legislation,” he said, adding, “I don’t want the committee to turn into a CEO Whac-a-Mole.”
Brand-name drug prices in the United States in 2022 were at least three times higher than those in 33 other rich countries, according to a recent report sponsored by the Department of Health and Human Services, even after taking into account rebates that can reduce how much they pay American health plans and employers.
Comparing drug prices in the United States with those in other countries can be difficult because the health care systems are so different. In the United States, drug price negotiations are fragmented among tens of thousands of health plans and employers, while European countries rely on a central negotiator. And while many prescription drugs can be bought for much less in European pharmacies, European countries do not necessarily offer broad insurance coverage for these drugs for their citizens.
Sarah Ryan, a spokeswoman for Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA, the drug industry’s main lobbying group, said in a statement that new drugs arrived faster in the United States than in any other country. He blamed middlemen known as pharmacy benefit managers for the high costs for Americans.
The three executives testifying Thursday are the latest to appear before Mr. Sanders since he became chairman of the health committee early last year. In March, Moderna’s CEO testified about the price of his company’s Covid-19 vaccine, and the CEOs of three major insulin makers — Eli Lilly, Novo Nordisk and Sanofi — appeared before the committee at a hearing in May.
Michelle Mello, a health policy expert at Stanford Law School, said lawmakers could use the hearing to build momentum around further legislative action on drug pricing, such as expanding the Medicare price negotiation program to include more drugs.
“We could do a lot more with this tool,” he said.