In a tense and high-stakes hearing on Thursday, U.S. senators clashed with chief executives from three major pharmaceutical companies – Johnson & Johnson, Merck, and Bristol Myers Squibb – over the glaring disparities in prescription drug prices between the United States and other developed nations.
The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions served as the battleground for this critical exchange, where senators sought answers on why medications often come with astronomical price tags in the U.S. compared to countries with similar healthcare systems. While the CEOs acknowledged the price differentials, they sought to justify them by pointing to the complexities inherent in the American healthcare landscape.
Chris Boerner, CEO of Bristol Myers Squibb, conceded that the American healthcare system is far from perfect, stating, “Patients bear the brunt of a complex US system that results in increasing healthcare costs and a lack of affordability.”
The committee’s pre-hearing briefing shed light on shocking examples of price gaps, such as Merck’s diabetes drug Januvia costing a mere $200 per year in France compared to a staggering list price of $6,900 in the U.S. Similar discrepancies were noted for other widely used drugs, including Johnson & Johnson’s arthritis medication Stelara and Bristol Myers Squibb’s blood thinner Eliquis.
Senator Bernie Sanders, the committee’s chair and a vocal advocate for healthcare reform, minced no words in his criticism of the pharmaceutical industry’s practices. He lambasted the undue influence of drug companies on government regulation, declaring, “The United States government does not regulate drug companies. With very few exceptions, the drug companies regulate the United States government.”
Central to the discussion was the recent launch of Medicare drug price negotiations under the Inflation Reduction Act. This landmark legislation empowers Medicare to directly negotiate drug prices with manufacturers, marking a significant step towards addressing the exorbitant costs of medications in the U.S.
The pharmaceutical CEOs staunchly defended the higher prices in the U.S., attributing them to fundamental differences in the American healthcare system. They argued that patients in the U.S. have faster access to innovative therapies compared to other nations, where regulatory hurdles may delay approvals.
However, senators pushed back against this narrative, highlighting that many other countries provide comprehensive coverage for newly developed drugs. Senator Bill Cassidy underscored the disparity, noting that public health insurance in Canada and the UK covers a significantly lower percentage of newly available drugs compared to the U.S.
The role of pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) in influencing drug prices emerged as a focal point of contention during the hearing. PBMs, acting as intermediaries between insurers, drug companies, and retailers, negotiate discounts that often fail to translate into tangible savings for consumers.
While pharmaceutical executives sought to deflect blame onto PBMs for inflating drug prices, senators emphasized the responsibility of drug companies in setting prohibitively high list prices. Peter Maybarduk, from the nonprofit Public Citizen, urged lawmakers to address the root causes of high drug prices rather than scapegoating intermediaries.
As Medicare embarks on negotiations with drugmakers, the spotlight remains firmly fixed on the urgent need to rein in the soaring costs of medications for American consumers. While the path ahead is fraught with challenges, Thursday’s hearing underscored the imperative of reforming the U.S. drug pricing system to ensure equitable access to affordable healthcare for all.