Ahead of a subcommittee hearing on the “soaring” cost of prescription drugs in the U.S., Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), along with a cohort of House representatives, introduced a set of bills that would lower the cost of most brand-name drugs by 50 percent.
“How many people need to die? How many people need to get unnecessarily sicker before Congress is prepared to take on the greed of the pharmaceutical industry?” Sanders asked in a hearing before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. “Last year, one out of five Americans could not afford to buy the medicine prescribed by their doctor.”
“The United States pays by far the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs. This is an immediate health crisis that must be addressed,” Sanders said in a statement released Tuesday. Indeed, recent analyses have shown that prescription drug prices in the U.S. are on average 2.6 times higher than what they are in other countries, and 3.4 times higher for brand-name drugs.
The bills, introduced by Sanders, Representatives Ro Khanna (D-California), Cori Bush (D-Missouri) and more than two dozen others are aimed at “drastically” reducing the cost of prescription drugs, according to a Sanders press release.
Similar to proposals previously championed by Sanders during his presidential run, the three bills would peg the price of prescription drugs to the median drug prices in five major countries, including Canada and the U.K.; direct the secretary of Health and Human Services to negotiate for lower drug prices; and allow patients and pharmacies to safely import drugs from other countries like Canada.
“In the wealthiest nation on planet Earth, no one should be choosing between paying for their medications or paying their rent,” said Khanna. Drug prices in the U.S. steadily tick up each year, a number of analyses have found.
During the hearing, Sanders noted that, compared to other special interest groups, the pharmaceutical industry has some of the most power over Capitol Hill. The pharmaceutical and health products industries spend hundreds of millions in lobbying every year, finds OpenSecrets, and that number has risen over the past decade. Last year, OpenSecrets reports, the pharmaceutical and health products industry spent more than $306 million on lobbying.
“The pharmaceutical industry is out of control,” Sanders told CNN. “They can charge any price they want at any time and that has to change.” The U.S. essentially has no regulations governing drug prices, so the pharmaceutical industry can set prices however they want.
In 2016, for instance, controversy erupted when pharmaceutical company Mylan raised the price of the lifesaving EpiPen by 400 percent over the course of a few years to $500. And in 2015, former hedge fund manager Martin Shkreli came under scrutiny for raising the price of an HIV/AIDS treatment from $13.50 to $750 per tablet.
Prescription drug prices are often a top concern for voters and the general concept of lowering drug prices has bipartisan buy-in. Many Republicans have run with the proposal on their platforms but end up not delivering. Previous attempts to lower drug prices, via different methods, had the backing of the public and even then-President Donald Trump, but members of Congress couldn’t agree on the right way to go about it.
The current bill on offer is unlikely to get Republican backing, as the GOP and the pharmaceutical industry are particularly opposed to letting the government negotiate drug prices.
However, Sanders and fellow lawmakers behind the bill are confident that they can pass the package through reconciliation in the Senate, meaning that they could pass it with no Republican buy-in. The proposal is strong enough that the pharmaceutical industry, normally untouchable on Capitol Hill, is bracing for defeat, Politico reports.
Democrats are considering putting the drug pricing proposals into an upcoming infrastructure bill that the White House is putting together as a cost-saving measure.