Bernie Sanders grills CEOs on pharmaceutical prices

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders on Wednesday honored the victims of soaring insulin prices before the Big Pharma CEOs who are responsible for it and reiterated the need to make all life-saving prescription drugs affordable.

Sanders (I-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), opened the panel hearing by acknowledging “the many Americans who needlessly lost their lives in because of the unaffordability of insulin” and “the thousands of people who have ended up in emergency rooms and hospitals with diabetic ketoacidosis – a very serious medical condition as a result of their insulin rationing.”

“This is a problem that is unique to the United States.”

Diabetes, a disease that can wreak havoc on organs, sight and limbs if left untreated, affects more than 37 million American adults and is the eighth leading cause of death in the country. according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although it costs less than $10 to produce a vial of insulin needed to treat diabetes, uninsured patients in the United States pay nearly $300 per vial of this century-old drug because Eli Lilly and Company, Novo Nordisk and Sanofi, the three pharmaceutical companies that control 90% of the lucrative US insulin market; charging excessive prices with little resistance from federal lawmakers.

As Sanders noted, such corporate profiteering — a problem compounded by the nation’s widespread lack of coverage by the for-profit health care system — forces many people to skip doses, with deadly consequences. Recent studies found that 1.3 million people in the United States ration insulin, including about 1 in 4 people with type 1 diabetes. People without insurance are most likely to do so, followed by those who have private insurance.

Ahead of the hearing, Sanders released a video showing diabetic patients sharing their struggles getting insulin in the United States.

“Imagine just three companies dominating the global market for necessities like air and water,” Steve Knievel, an advocate for Public Citizen’s Access to Medicines Program, said in a statement Wednesday. “That’s what people with diabetes face with insulin.”

Addressing the CEOs of the three aforementioned companies during the hearing, Sanders explained how each has driven prices up over the past decades:

Eli Lilly has raised the price of Humalog 34 times since 1996, from $21 to $275, an increase of 1,200%. Exactly the same product. No change. The only reason for the huge increase in prices during this period was that there was no legislation to stop them. In America, drug companies could charge any price.

But it’s not just Eli Lilly. Novo Nordisk increased the price of Novolog 28 times, from $40 in 2001 to $289, an increase of 625%.

And then there’s Sanofi, a company that raised the price of Lantus 28 times from $35 in 2001 to $292, a 730% increase.

“In each case, it’s the exact same product that’s increased astronomically,” Sanders said. “And let’s be clear. This is a unique problem in the United States. In France, 20 years ago, the price of Lantus was 40 dollars. Today, it has gone down to only 24 dollars.”

Sanders accompanied Americans with diabetes on a two-mile trip from Detroit, Michigan to Windsor, Ontario. In Canada, people can buy the exact same insulin product for a tenth of the price they would pay in the United States.

“We cannot rely on limited price concessions from insulin companies to ensure this essential resource is accessible and fairly priced for Americans who need it.”

Also present at Wednesday’s hearing were executives from CVS Health, Express Scripts and OptumRX, three leading pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs). Sanders took them to task, noting that “as insulin manufacturers continued to raise prices, PBMs signed secret deals to increase their profits by listing insulin products on their formularies not with the lowest list price, but those that offered PBMs the most generous discounts”.

Thanks to sustained public pressure and new policy changes, namely the provision of the Inflation Reduction Act limiting insulin co-payments for Medicare beneficiaries to $35 per month, Eli Lilly, Novo Nordisk and Sanofi have all recently pledged to significantly lower the list prices of some of their insulins. some products. As Sanders explained:

Eli Lilly has announced that it will reduce the price of Humalog by 70% later this year, from $275 to $83. Eli Lilly also dropped the price of its generic Humalog to $25 per bottle.

Novo Nordisk said it will cut the price of Novolog by 75% starting next year, from $289 to $72.

Sanofi said it will cut the price of Lantus by 78% starting next year, from $292 to $64.

While Sanders thanked the three companies for taking what he called “an important step forward,” he stressed that “we need to make sure these price reductions go into effect so that every American with diabetes get the insulin he needs at an affordable price.” promising to “hold a hearing early next year to make sure this happens”.

Knievel, meanwhile, said “we cannot rely on limited price concessions from insulin companies to ensure this essential resource is accessible and fairly priced for Americans who need it. regardless of their insurance status or age.

His message was echoed by Margarida Jorge, head of Lower Drug Prices Now.

“Certainly these multimillion-dollar CEOs will spend their time before the committee congratulating themselves on bowing to public pressure and lowering the cost of insulin,” Jorge said in a statement. “But let’s be clear, the tens of millions of Americans who can’t afford their prescription drugs shouldn’t have to depend on the goodwill of greedy companies that have repeatedly shown they care. more profits than people to relieve them of skyrocketing prescription costs.”

Sanders and Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) recently introduced the Insulin for All Act of 2023, which would cap insulin prices at $20 per vial.

Only such federal legislation can “end decades of price gouging that have caused preventable suffering and cost the lives of people with diabetes who need insulin to live,” Knievel said.

Meanwhile, Sanders clarified that the unaffordability of insulin is part of a much larger crisis and then asked:

If Eli Lilly can drop the price of Humalog by 70%, why is it still charging Americans about $200,000 for Cyramza (CYR-AMZA) to treat stomach cancer? A drug that can be bought in Germany for only $54,000?

If Novo Nordisk can reduce the price of Novolog by 75%, why is it still charging Americans with diabetes $12,000 for Ozempic when the same drug can be purchased for just $2,000 in Canada?

If Sanofi can reduce the price of Lantus by 78%, why is it still charging cancer patients over $200,000 in the United States for Caprelsa, a drug that can be purchased in Japan for just $37,000?

“Lowering the cost of insulin is only part of what we need to accomplish,” the senator said. “This committee is determined to end the outrage in which Americans are paying, by far, the highest prices in the world for virtually every brand name prescription drug on the market, whether a drug for cancer, heart disease, asthma or whatever.”

“We want to know why there are Americans dying or getting much sicker than they should because they can’t afford the drugs they need,” he said. he continued. “We have to ask ourselves how come almost half of all new drugs cost more than $150,000? ?”

“Americans are dying, getting sicker than they should, and going bankrupt because they can’t afford the exorbitant cost of prescription drugs, while drug companies and PBMs make huge profits. It must to change.”

“I know our guests from pharmaceutical companies will tell us how much it costs to develop a new drug and how often the search for new cures fails,” Sanders said. “I get it. But what they’re going to have to explain to us is why, over the past decade, 14 big pharma companies, including Eli Lilly, have spent $747 billion on stock buybacks and dividends. “

“They will also have to explain how the pharmaceutical industry as a whole has spent $8.5 billion in lobbying and more than $745 million in campaign contributions over the past 25 years to get Congress to do its bidding.” , Sanders added. “Incredibly, last year, pharmaceutical companies hired more than 1,700 lobbyists, including former congressional leaders from both major political parties, or more than three pharmaceutical industry lobbyists for every member of Congress.”

In the words of Sanders, “This may well explain why we pay the highest prices for prescription drugs in the world and why today pharmaceutical companies can price new drugs at whatever level they want.”

“While Americans pay outrageously high prices for prescription drugs, the pharmaceutical industry and PBMs make huge profits,” he noted. “In 2021, 10 major US pharmaceutical companies made over $100 billion in profits, a 137% increase over the previous year. The top 50 executives of these companies received more than $1.9 billion in total compensation in 2021 and are on track to receive billions more. in golden parachutes once they left their company. Last year, the top three U.S. PBMs made $27.5 billion in profits, a 483% increase over the past decade. These PBMs handle 80% of all prescription drugs in America.

“In other words, Americans are dying, getting sicker than they should, and going bankrupt because they can’t afford the exorbitant cost of prescription drugs, while the drug companies and PBMs are dying. ‘huge profits,’ Sanders lamented. “That has to change and this committee is going to do everything possible to bring about that change.”

Jorge, for his part, described the Inflation Reduction Act as a “milestone” piece of legislation that will “help tens of millions of seniors.”

“But this is just the beginning,” Jorge said. “Congress should pass legislation to bring about the prescription drug reforms that save Medicare patients and taxpayers billions of dollars for people of all ages, so everyone can get lower prices for the drugs they need. he needs, including insulin.”

“Congress, not greedy corporations trying to redeem their tarnished reputations, should lead the way in reforms that put patients before pharmaceutical profits,” she added.

Republished from Common Dreams (Kenny Stancil, editor) under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0).

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