Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) has sharply criticized conservative Democrats over their opposition to a proposal in the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill that would allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices.
“I think it’s totally absurd,” Sanders said to MSNBC’s Chris Hayes. “The polling out there is just unbelievable: Whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, an overwhelming majority of the American people understand that the pharmaceutical industry is ripping us off in an unconscionable way.”
Sanders emphasized that drug pricing can be a matter of life and death.
“Thousands of people die every year because they can’t afford the medicine that they need,” Sanders continued. “The question is whether we have the guts to stand up to what is an incredibly powerful lobby.”
The pharmaceutical industry spends an enormous amount of money on lobbying each year, Sanders pointed out, and it has well over a thousand lobbyists pressuring lawmakers. Currently, some Americans are being charged $340 for a single vial of insulin that lasts 28 days — but on a 2019 trip to Canada, Sanders found that people who need insulin could be paying only a tenth of that price.
Prescription drugs are indeed more expensive in the U.S. than they are in other countries. An April report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that prescription drugs are two to four times higher here than they are in comparably wealthy countries like Canada and France. For consumers paying out of pocket, some drugs go for as much as 10 times more in the U.S. than elsewhere, the report found.
This is largely due to the pharmaceutical industry, which is one of the most powerful, most moneyed and most unchecked lobbies in the U.S. The industry exercises vast influence over both sides of the aisle in Congress — a fact that conservative Democrats made plain this week.
Representatives Scott Peters (D-California), Kathleen Rice (D-New York) and Kurt Schrader (D-Oregon) joined Republicans in voting down the proposal to allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices, jeopardizing a huge portion of the Democrats’ bill — including the $3.5 trillion price tag. Though the Senate could still choose to write the proposal back into the bill, the House committee vote lays bare the loyalties of the conservative Democrats in the party.
Without the support of all 50 Democrats in the Senate, the entire bill will be endangered — and lawmakers like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia), who has been especially loud in his opposition to the price, seem to relish that power.
Lobbyists representing a wide swath of industries, including the pharmaceutical industry, are quietly pouring tens of millions of dollars into weakening the reconciliation bill. According to the most recent data from OpenSecrets, both Schrader’s and Peters’s top campaign donor is the pharmaceutical lobby.
Sanders emphasized on Thursday that the entire reconciliation bill is vital to taking on power structures in the country.
“We are taking on the entire ruling class of America. The entire oligarchy. We’re taking on the pharmaceutical industry, because they don’t want us to lower the cost of prescription drugs. We’re taking on the health care industry — they don’t want us to expand Medicare to cover dental, hearing aids and eyeglasses,” said Sanders. “We’re taking on the fossil fuel industry, obviously, because they want to continue to make profits by destroying the planet.”
He also said that concerns about the cost of the bill are spurious in the face of impending and ongoing climate disaster.
“How much is too much when you’re talking about saving the planet? How much? If the planet goes down in 50 years, gee whiz, how much should we have spent or not spent?” Sanders said. “The American people want us to address the crises facing working people and have the guts, finally, to stand up to the big money interests.”