Sen. Chuck Grassley opened a hearing into the rising costs of skyrocketing prices on Tuesday by blasting Big Pharma, saying that skyrocketing prices are hurting Americans and that the time has come for a reckoning.
“We’ve all seen the finger-pointing. Every link in the supply chain has gotten skilled at that,” said Grassley, an Iowa Republican and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. “But, like most Americans, I’m sick and tired of the blame game. It’s time for solutions.”
Grassley’s comments were the first fireworks in what promised to be a grilling of some of the nation’s most important pharmaceutical executives about the exorbitant prices of America’s medications.
Seven drug executives testified before the committee, the largest gathering in decades of pharmaceutical executives before a congressional panel. The rising costs of drugs have become a hot political issue, with President Donald Trump vowing to take action to bring down prices and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle making similar pledges.
“America has a problem with the high cost of prescription medicines,” Grassley said. “We’re all trying to understand the sticker shock that many drugs generate — especially when some of those drugs have been around for a long time.”
He said he’d heard from people who leave their prescriptions on the pharmacy counter because the meds costs too much and others who skip “doses of their prescription drugs to make them last until the next paycheck.”
“I’m not a doctor, but rationing one’s medicine doesn’t sound like a safe prescription for health and wellness,” Grassley said.
He acknowledged that drug pricing is a complex issue but then said, “But I think we should all be asking: Should it be so complex?
“We cannot allow anyone to hide behind the current complexities to shield the true cost of a drug,” he said. “And we shouldn’t turn a blind eye to industry practices that thwart the laws and regulations designed to promote competition and generic drug entry in the market.”
Grassley wrote an opinion piece published Tuesday, February 26, in the Des Moines Register. He said he wanted answers to a simple question: “Why do prescription drug prices keep rising?”
Sen. Ron Wyden, the ranking member of the committee, called soaring drug prices “morally repugnant” and derided the pharmaceutical executives in attendance as conducting business in an “unacceptable” way.
“Drug prices are astronomically high because that’s where pharmaceutical companies and their investors want them,” said Wyden, D-Oregon.
Last week, Grassley and Wyden began an investigation into insulin prices, sending letters to leading manufacturers Eli Lilly, Novo Nordisk and Sanofi about their recent price increases of up to 500%.
At the start of the hearing, Wyden said he was present decades ago when tobacco executives were called before Congress to explain themselves. “They lied that day,” Wyden said. “This chairman and I expect better than that today.”
Sanofi CEO Olivier Brandicourt was among the executives on hand for the hearing. Brandicourt told lawmakers that there was no single cause for rising costs and that it was time to take a comprehensive look at the issue.
“I understand the anger,” he said.
Other executives called to testify were Richard A. Gonzalez, chairman and CEO of AbbVie; Pascal Soriot, executive director and CEO of AstraZeneca; Giovanni Caforio, chairman and CEO of Bristol-Myers Squibb; Jennifer Taubert, chairman and executive vice president of Johnson & Johnson; Kenneth C. Frazier, chairman and CEO of Merck; and Albert Bourla, CEO of Pfizer.
Each company has had at least one of its drugs climb dramatically in price in recent years, resulting in significant profits for the companies. Each executive testified about wanting to help reduce prices in some capacity.
More than 650 products have seen price hikes this year, through early February, according to Rx Savings Solutions, which sells software to employers and insurers to reduce drug costs. The industry justifies the moves as essential for investing in research and development. Drug makers often point out that they see very little of the increases because of the big rebates they distribute to others in the supply chain, including insurers and pharmacy benefit managers, who in turn blame pharma for setting high list prices.
Among cost-saving ideas from the Trump administration, one suggests setting the reimbursement level for certain drugs administered in doctors’ offices and hospital outpatient centers based on their cost in other countries, which typically pay far less. The so-called International Pricing Index model has already faced blowback from many quarters, including some Republican lawmakers.
Democrats have begun pushing a plan to allow the government to directly negotiate the prices of Medicare prescription drugs, saying that such a move could save billions of dollars. The pharmaceutical industry has long resisted such a change.
Pfizer’s Bourla said that his company was committed to reform but that any reform should take a look at all market segments. He said rising drug prices were causing hardships on Americans.
“This is forcing patients to forgo taking needed medications or to limit their doses,” Bourla said. “This is bad.”
Wyden grew animated after the opening remarks, bashing the executives for blaming other issues and not focusing enough on reducing list prices.
“All of this other stuff is window-dressing,” Wyden snapped. “You are stonewalling on the key issue.”
He pressed AbbVie’s Gonzalez on whether the company makes money on drugs in countries like Germany and other Westernized countries where patients pay, on average, 40% less than Americans.
“Yes, we do,” Gonzalez said.
If that’s the case, Wyden said, “you can do the same thing in the United States.”
“How is that not gouging the American consumer?” he asked.”You are willing to sit by and hose the American consumer and give breaks to those overseas.”