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Pharma Fight

Bernie Sanders Has a Plan to Make Big Pharma’s Greedheads Squirm

The senator spoke to TNR about how he’ll grill the CEOs of three drug manufacturers about their high prices.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders stands in front of posters describing the extent to which pharmaceuticals cost more in the United States than in other countries.
Kent Nishimura/Getty Images
Senator Bernie Sanders speaks to reporters at a news conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on January 25.

Since taking the helm of the committee that oversees the nation’s health care system last year, Senator Bernie Sanders has used his perch to take aim at pharmaceutical executives over the cost of prescription drugs. Next week, the CEOs of drug manufacturers Johnson & Johnson, Merck, and Bristol Myers Squibb will appear before the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee to testify at a hearing concerned with the high prices of prescription medication in the United States as compared to other countries. The executives agreed to appear voluntarily last week after Sanders threatened to hold a vote to subpoena them.

In 2023, the CEOs of companies such as Moderna and Eli Lilly appeared before the committee for a round of inquisition and castigation over the cost of medications and vaccines—a line of questioning not typically embraced by the panel’s Republican members. Still, those occasionally combative hearings have produced results: Last year, the head of Eli Lilly pledged that his company would not raise prices on insulin products, although the other two pharmaceutical executives present did not. But not every firm came away from those sessions cowed: Johnson & Johnson accused Sanders of retaliating against the company for their lawsuit against the Biden administration over a program that would allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices.

In an interview on Thursday, Sanders discussed his plans for next week’s tête-à-tête with the pharma CEOs, as well as his broader vision for the HELP Committee. He also spoke about how Democrats should be approaching issues such as prescription drug costs in the upcoming elections. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

The CEOs of Merck and Johnson & Johnson initially said they would not testify and then abruptly switched course. Do you think this is due to the subpoena threat that you made?

Yes. Look, everything being equal, the major drug companies want to hide from the American people the American greed which they are exercising right now, which results in us paying the highest prices worldwide of prescription drugs. So the less that they are in the public eye, the better it is for them. Two out of the three denied our request to come voluntarily. The majority of the members of the committee were prepared to vote for a subpoena. They changed their mind, and I’m glad they’re going to be there.

Last year, the Eli Lilly CEO said in one of your hearings that his company would not raise prices on insulin products again. Are you hoping to get similar commitments from the CEOs appearing next week?

Yes. Hearings are important in order to explain to the American people important issues. And that educational value is very important. But at a time when we in some cases are paying 10 times more for the same exact drug sold in Canada or sold in Europe, I want the commitment from these drug companies that they’re going to substantially lower their prices. That is the goal of the hearing.

You’ve been using your position as HELP chair to grill a lot of CEOs. How do you see your role as HELP chair, and the importance of—for lack of a better term—grilling?

One of the tools that the chairman has is to put public pressure on CEOs whose companies are acting irresponsibly or with greed. And we have had some luck so far. We had, as you may know, early on the head of Moderna, the vaccine maker. What we got out of them, and they have kept their word, is a commitment that while they raise prices for their vaccine outrageously—and that is very disturbing—the commitment we got out of them is that any uninsured or underinsured person in America can walk into a drugstore to get the vaccine for free. That is significant. That means millions of people will probably be able to get vaccines who otherwise might not.

We had discussions again last year with the CEOs of some of the major railroads that opposed giving their workers paid sick leave. We had a press conference on that issue, I did it with Senator Braun. And lo and behold, a few months later, all of the unions received seven days paid sick leave. It was a substantial breakthrough for the workers in the rail industry. We had Mr. Schultz, the then head of Starbucks, before the committee trying to explain to us that it really wasn’t breaking federal law—which in my view it was—in terms of its anti-union activities. And what you’re seeing is continued union activity and movement on the part of workers at Starbucks.

So we used the committee to pass legislation, we got it out of the committee in a bipartisan vote of 14 to 7, one of the most significant primary care bills passed in recent years. Hopefully it becomes law.

[Note: This legislation, the Primary Care and Health Workforce Act, which would increase funding for federally qualified health centers, was passed out of the HELP Committee in September.]

You’ve been accused by Johnson & Johnson of retaliating against them for their lawsuits against the Biden administration. Does targeting pharma companies so aggressively run the risk of politicizing what you’re trying to accomplish, making it seem like a stunt rather than a good-faith effort to lower drug prices?

No. This is an issue I’ve been working on for years. And the reason we talk to these guys and ask them to come in is, we want them to explain—we want Merck to explain to the American people why they charge diabetes patients in the United States $6,900 for Januvia, a diabetes drug, while the exact same product can be purchased in Canada for $900, and just $200 in France.… You think it’s a good question to ask the CEO of Merck why that’s the case?

Johnson & Johnson charges $79,000 for Stelara, an arthritis drug, [and] $16,000 in the United Kingdom. Bristol Myers Squibb charges patients in our country $7,100 for Eliquis; the same product can be purchased in France for $650.

Remember, the pharmaceutical industry made $110 billion in profit last year. They’re enormously powerful. They have unlimited amounts of money. They have all kinds of lobbyists and communications people, and they are going to try to obfuscate the reality that they are ripping off the American people in any and every way they can.

Your ranking member, Senator Cassidy, has said that you are really bringing CEOs in to rake them over the coals. Do you think that this hearing next week will have any bipartisanship, in frustration with pharma companies, or do you think this will be more of a partisan exercise?

I think there will be bipartisanship. You’re already seeing it. Again, on the primary care bill, which Senator Cassidy voted against, we did have three Republicans out of 10 Republicans. Look, if you look at polling on this, and I do—what you find is, the high cost of prescription drugs is not just a Democratic issue, believe me. I’ve seen polls … where they’ve asked Republicans what their major issue is. One of the major issues is the outrageously high cost of prescription drugs. So this is not a Democratic issue. It’s not a Republican issue. It’s not an independent issue. The American people are disgusted with paying in some cases 10 times more for the same drugs as people in other countries.

I’m glad you mentioned that political dimension here. Pharma CEOs aren’t exactly the most popular group of people with Americans. As we enter election season, do you think Democrats writ large should focus more on taking the powerful to task, rather than simply focusing on Donald Trump?

Yeah.… The American people want the president, they want Congress to substantially lower the cost of prescription drugs. In fairness to the Biden administration, we have made some progress. Medicare will now be able to negotiate the price of a number of drugs—not as much as I would like; not as quickly as I would like—but it’s a start in doing what virtually every other country on earth does, which is say to drug companies, “You cannot charge us any price that you want, for any reason.”