WASHINGTON, Oct. 18 – Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, today led the committee in a hearing to consider the nomination of Dr. Monica Bertagnolli to serve as Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Sanders’ remarks, as prepared for delivery, are below and can be watched here:
The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions will come to order.
This morning we will be considering the nomination of Dr. Monica Bertagnolli to serve as the Director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Let me begin by welcoming Dr. Bertagnolli to our committee. We look forward to hearing from you and we thank you for being here today.
The NIH, with a budget of more than $47 billion, is the largest funder of medical research in the world.
This research has led to new treatments and prescription drugs that have significantly improved the lives of the people in America and throughout the world. Every American should take great pride in those accomplishments.
But, having said that, let me say a few words about my concerns. The American health care system is broken and failing. We spend almost twice as much as any other industrialized country per capita on health care. Yet, we have 85 million Americans who are uninsured or under-insured, we don’t have enough doctors, nurses, dentists, or mental health specialists. And, very relevant to this hearing, we pay, by far, the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs – sometimes ten times more than the people of other countries.
While the ten largest drug companies made over $112 billion in profits last year and pay their CEOs exorbitant compensation packages, one out of four Americans cannot afford to pay for the medicine they need and thousands of families face financial ruin as they pay outrageous prices for the prescription drugs that keep them alive.
Think about that for a second. Millions of people get sick. They go to the doctor who writes out a prescription. And yet because of the exorbitant prices that we pay, one out of four cannot fill that prescription. How insane is that?
But it’s not just the high cost of prescription drugs impacting individuals. In the largest hospital in my state of Vermont, and I don’t think it’s terribly different elsewhere, the high cost of prescription drugs account for 20% of the overall budget which is driving hospital costs up and insurance costs up.
In other words, the outrageously high cost of prescription drugs in America is a crisis situation that must be addressed.
Adding insult to injury, not only has the federal government not effectively regulated the price of prescription drugs but the taxpayers of this country have, over the years, provided hundreds of billions of dollars in research and development into new prescription drugs that have provided enormous benefits some of the most profitable pharmaceutical companies in America.
For example, in America today, the median cost of new cancer drugs has gone up by more than 300 percent over the past decade even though 85 percent of the initial foundational cancer research is funded by U.S. taxpayers.
In June, this Committee released a report that found that the average price of new treatments that NIH scientists helped invent over the past 20 years is $111,000.
In virtually all cases, American taxpayers are paying far more than people in other countries for the exact same medicine that the NIH helped develop.
Here are just a few examples from this report:
Astellas and Pfizer charge Americans with prostate cancer over $165,000 for Xtandi while the exact same drug can be purchased in Japan for just $20,000. In other words, American taxpayers fund the research, but can’t afford the product they helped create.
Johnson & Johnson charges Americans with HIV $56,000 for Symtuza while the exact same treatment can be purchased in the United Kingdom for just $10,000.
Gilead charges Americans with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma $424,000 for Yescarta while the exact same therapy can be purchased in Japan for just $212,000.
Millennium Pharmaceuticals charges Americans with cancer $54,000 for Velcade while the exact same drug can be purchased in France for just $11,000.
Sobi is charging Americans with severe mouth sores $19,000 for Kepivance while the exact same drug can be purchased in Italy for just $5,000.
And after receiving $12 billion from the federal government, Moderna has quadrupled the price of the COVID vaccine – a vaccine that was literally co-invented by NIH scientists – to $128, while the exact same vaccine will, through the power of negotiation, be sold in Europe for as little as $26.
Does anybody think that this process makes sense? If American taxpayer dollars helped develop a drug, we should be paying the lowest prices in the world, not the highest.
That is unacceptable and that has got to change. No prescription drug, no matter how effective and life-saving it may be, is worth anything to the patient who cannot afford it.
In my view, at this very difficult moment for American health care, we need an NIH Director who is prepared to take on the greed of the pharmaceutical industry and use every tool at his or her disposal to substantially lower the outrageous cost of prescription drugs.
The 1,800 well-paid lobbyists from the pharmaceutical industry here in DC may not like it, but that is precisely what the American people need.
The status quo is not working. We need fundamental changes in the way that the NIH addresses the crisis of the high cost of prescription drugs.
We need an NIH Director who is prepared to reinstate and expand the reasonable pricing clause to make sure that pharmaceutical companies set reasonable prices for new prescription drugs developed with taxpayer support.
We need an NIH Director who is prepared to use march-in rights to allow companies to manufacture low-cost generic versions of prescription drugs like Xtandi that were also developed with taxpayer support.
There is a lot of discussion about how "divided" our nation is and, on many issues, that is absolutely true.
But on one of the most important matters facing our country, the American people outside the beltway – Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Progressives, Conservatives – could not be more united. They want Congress and the Administration to take on the greed of the pharmaceutical industry and to substantially lower the outrageously high price of prescription drugs – period. And a new director of the NIH can play a very important role in making that happen.
Dr. Bertagnolli, I look forward to hearing your testimony and asking you questions in a few moments.
Senator Cassidy, you are recognized for your opening statement.