By Yasmeen Abutaleb and Michael Erman
WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. Senators called drug pricing practices “morally repugnant” and told drug company executives they do not want to hear them blame others for the high prices, taking an aggressive stance at the start of a Senate hearing on the rising costs of prescription medicines.
Executives from Abbvie Inc, AstraZeneca PLC, Sanofi (PA:) SA, Pfizer Inc (NYSE:), Merck & Co, Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:) and Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE:) Co are all expected to answer questions from members of the U.S. Senate Finance Committee.
In his opening statement, Ron Wyden, the Senate Finance Committee’s top Democrat tore into each company one-by-one for “profiteering and two-faced scheming.”
“Drug makers behave as if patients and taxpayers are unlocked ATMs full of cash to be extracted, and their shareholders are the customers they value above all else,” Wyden said.
Congress has already held several hearings on rising prescription drug prices in both the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives and the Republican-led Senate, but Tuesday’s hearing is the first time drug company executives, most of them CEOs, will face lawmakers in more than two years.
U.S. President Donald Trump has said drugmakers are “getting away with murder,” and his administration has made bringing down prescription medicine costs for U.S. consumers a top priority.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) last year rolled out a plan to lower drug prices and has introduced several modest proposals to curb medicine costs, but Democrats have the Trump administration is not doing enough.
Several drugmakers temporarily froze price increases last year after criticism from Trump, but they raised prices on more than 250 prescription drugs at the start of this year, albeit at lower levels than in years past.
Pharmaceutical companies have blamed high research and development costs for their prices, as well as discounts, or rebates, they must provide to pharmacy benefits managers (PBMs)and insurers to ensure patient access to their medicines. HHS has proposed a rule to eliminate rebates in Medicare and Medicaid, the government health insurance programs.
In prepared remarks, all seven company executives pointed to their records of innovation in developing lifesaving medications, and several noted they have spent billions of dollars on research and development.
“American research-based companies are leading the next wave of biomedical innovation to help patients whose diseases cannot be adequately treated with today’s medicines. We should work to ensure policies that support and reward these investments,” said Bristol-Myers Chief Executive Giovanni Caforio.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, a Republican, wrote on Twitter on Monday that he hoped the executives “don’t try to blame everyone but themselves/take no responsibility for their role in fixing the problem.”
Caforio and other executives called for reform of rebates that PBMs receive from drugmakers. And he spoke out against a Trump administration plan that would seek to lower prescription drug prices for the government’s Medicare program by basing prices for some medications on the lower prices paid in other countries, where governments directly or indirectly set prices.