Company Execs in the Hot Seat Over High Drug Prices

    Maryland Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin was among the lawmakers who grilled pharmaceutical executives Tuesday on the soaring costs of prescription drugs.

    In a packed hearing room on Capitol Hill, Democrats and Republicans alike criticized the leaders of seven major companies — Pfizer, Merck, AbbVie, AstraZeneca, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Johnson & Johnson and Sanofi — for failing to keep medicine affordable for many consumers.

    Cardin, a member of the Senate Finance Committee, told the executives he’s proud of the industry’s work. But, he added, “The challenge that we all have is why should Americans be shouldering the lion’s cost of the burden of research and development in bringing new drugs to market?”

    Cardin pressed the executives for details about why U.S. consumers pay higher costs for drugs than do people in other countries. “Why not move towards a process in which American consumers share a similar price as consumers in other industrial nations in the world?” he said.

    Another committee Democrat, Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, urged the executives to “say thank you to the American taxpayer,” because billions of dollars of federal grants have helped their companies to develop their products.

    “I support that because the basic research is something that I believe we all need to share in,” Stabenow said. “American taxpayers, we are happy to be able to help you develop these drugs. But I can tell you people in Michigan just feel that the bargain ought to be that they ought to be able to afford the medicine after they have helped to develop it.”

    Republicans on the committee used the opportunity to criticize the executives, too.

    “We’ve all seen the finger pointing. Every link in the supply chain has gotten skilled at that,” Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said. “But, like most Americans, I’m sick and tired of the blame game. It’s time for solutions. One way or another we’re going to get some clarity.”

    Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the top Democrat on the committee, was more pointed in his criticism of the drug makers. He cited the example of AbbVie, whose arthritis medication, Humira, is the top-selling U.S. prescription drug.

    “Over six years, the company doubled the price of a 12-month supply from $19,000 to $38,000. Can patients opt for a less expensive alternative? No they cannot, because AbbVie protects the exclusivity of Humira like Gollum with his ring,” Wyden said. “Thick cobwebs of patents, legal tricks and shadowy deals with other drug makers, all to keep the cash flowing.”

    The pharmaceutical executives, for their part, agreed that more needs to be done to bring down the costs of drugs for consumers, and they agreed to work with lawmakers to do so. They said that they’ve invested tens of billions of dollars on research and development for drugs to combat cancer, Alzheimer’s and other diseases.

    They also stressed that their companies take on significant financial risk when they develop new drugs.

    “[B]ecause we are tackling medicine’s most challenging problems, solutions do not come easily or without significant risk,” said Richard Gonzalez, CEO of AbbVie. “Where we have succeeded, we have been able to provide cures for fatal diseases like hepatitis C and significantly alter the disease progression for certain cancers, lessening the burden of illness on patients and the health care system.”

    In the Maryland State House, lawmakers are considering legislation that would create a prescription drug affordability board, designed to hold the line on pharmaceutical prices.

    Robin Bravender is Washington bureau chief for States Newsroom.

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