Leaders of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies tried to dodge blame over high drug prices during a three-hour hearing at the Senate Finance Committee last week. While some lawmakers threatened that Congress may step in by enforcing policy changes if drug makers don’t take the lead in reducing drug costs, at the end of the day, no real plans were made.
“What people are taking away from this hearing … [is that] no firm commitments have been made to lower list prices,” Sen. Ron Wyden, of Oregon, the committee’s ranking member said just before the hearing ended.
The hearing brought Republicans and Democrats together in thought for a change, with most agreeing that the cost of drugs has gotten out of hand, so much so Americans are struggling more than ever to pay for much-needed medications. Dodging those claims were top executives from AbbVie Inc., AstraZeneca PLC, Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., Johnson & Johnson, Merck & Co. Inc., Pfizer Inc., and Sanofi.
Sen. Wyden brought up the point that drug prices in the United States are higher than any other country in the world. He asked AbbVie CEO Richard Gonzalez specifically if American families were paying more for the blockbuster arthritis drug Humira than European families. Yes, Gonzalez admitted. Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan then pointed out that because of Humira’s $18.4 billion revenue, “if Humira were a standalone company, it would be larger than many Fortune 500 conglomerates, such as General Mills, Halliburton, or Xerox.” Coincidentally, Humira’s price jumped from $19,000 a year in 2012 to $38,000 a year in 2018.
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas pressed Gonzalez about Humira even further, questioning its numerous patents that prevent generic companies from marketing lower-cost versions of the drug. “I support our patent system and think it’s very important, but what I don’t understand is … Humira has 247 patents and some of those don’t expire until 2034,” Cornyn said. “Humira was first sold to patients in 2003; is it your company’s position that you should have the patent on Humira for 31 years?”
Gonzalez corrected Cornyn, saying the total number of patents is closer to 136, and that it is more like nine or 10 different drugs than just one.
Johnson & Johnson’s pharmaceutical executive vice president and chair Jennifer Taubert was also grilled for promoting a so-called “pseudo-addiction” – a condition in which patients request higher dosages of opioids to treat pain – as a way to increase sales. Taubert disagreed with the accusation made by Sen. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, but Sen. Hassen continued that while J&J’s unit Janssen Pharmaceuticals “promoted this made-up concept of pseudo-addiction … since then your company repeatedly said your actions in the marketing and promotion of opioid medications [were] appropriate and responsible,” she said. “You’re refusing to take responsibility for your company’s role in this crisis.”
The Senate Aging Committee is expected to meet this week to discuss the issue of drug pricing among patients and academics.