Image source: Michael Vadon | Flickr / flickr.com/photos/80038275@N00/22721145182
To some, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders may seem like a fading memory from the 2016 presidential campaign.
However, this summer, Sanders has been front and center in the battle to lower prescription drug prices.
Sanders has been pushing two proposals that he says will help slash the skyrocketing costs of pharmaceutical drugs.
One proposal would put price controls on new drugs where taxpayer money was used to help fund research.
The second would make it easier to import prescription drugs from Canada and other countries.
Consumer groups welcome the pieces of legislation.
“Patients are struggling so much right now with skyrocketing drug prices,” Ben Wakana, executive director of Patients for Affordable Drugs, told Healthline.
The pharmaceutical industry is not so pleased.
“[Such proposals] ignore the substantial R&D [research and development] investments and risks undertaken by the private sector in developing and bringing a new medicine to patients,” Nicole Longo, senior manager of public affairs for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), told Healthline.
Trying to control prices
Earlier this month, Sanders introduced a rule change to the 1938 Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.
The amendment would require pharmaceutical companies to charge fair prices for drugs that were developed with the assistance of taxpayer money.
The price controls would be implemented by federal agencies and federally funded nonprofits before they granted manufacturers exclusive rights to produce drugs, vaccines, and other healthcare products.
Sanders’ main target is the drugmaker Sanofi Pasteur and its exclusive arrangement with the Department of Defense to produce a Zika vaccine developed by the U.S. Army.
But the rule change would apply to any drug where taxpayer money is used for research.
Wakana estimated that 50 percent of all new drugs involve taxpayer-funded research.
He said his organization hasn’t taken an official stand yet on Sanders’ price control proposal, but they support action to rein in drug costs.
The organization notes that taxpayers invested more than $200 million to help research the drug.
The group stated the new CAR-T treatment could cure certain cancers and “has the potential to be one of the most expensive drugs ever sold.”
In addition, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform announced today they are launching an investigation into the price for drugs that treat multiple sclerosis.
Wakana said the situations with companies such as Sanofi and Novartis are not unusual.
“American taxpayers make unique investment in drug research,” he said. “What makes my blood boil is when taxpayers get charged twice.”
Officials at America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) agree with Wakana.
Cathryn Donaldson, the group’s director of communications and public affairs, said AHIP has not taken a stance on either of the Sanders’ bills, but they support efforts to bring down drug prices.
“Big pharma continues to game the system and take advantage of federal loopholes to keep drug prices high,” Donaldson told Healthline.
She noted that Pfizer has reportedly raised the price of nearly 100 drugs by an average of 20 percent this year.
Donaldson added that AHIP discussed these issues in a statement it recently submitted to the House Judiciary Committee.
However, Longo said proposals that install price controls “undermine critical intellectual property rights and incentives, create substantial uncertainty for companies, and establish completely arbitrary criteria for taking intellectual property.”
“It could chill critically needed collaborations and investment by the private sector to address some of our most serious unmet medical needs,” she added.
Wakana dismissed the PhRMA comments as the industry’s effort to “try to scare people.”
“The drug companies feel no responsibility to price drugs fairly,” he said.
He noted the pharmaceutical industry spends far more on marketing than it does on research.
“If they’re so scared about research and development, why don’t they spend less on advertising?” he said.
Does importing drugs save money?
The other legislation Sanders is promoting is a bill that would allow Americans to buy prescription drugs from Canada and other countries.
A report by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released this month estimated the Affordable and Safe Prescription Drug Importation Act would save U.S. consumers nearly $7 billion over the next 10 years.
In a statement, Sanders said the same drugs made by the same companies in the same factories are less expensive in other countries.
“In 2014, Americans spent $1,112 per person on prescription drugs while Canadians spent $772 and Danes spent $325,” Sanders said.
Holly Campbell, deputy vice president of public affairs for PhRMA, said the issue isn’t that simple.
She told Healthline that “importation is first and foremost a patient and safety issue.”
She said the extra money that would be spent on law enforcement to assure that unregulated counterfeit drugs weren’t coming across our border “would far outweigh any purported savings.”
She added that law enforcement authorities have concluded that drug imports would make the nation’s opioid epidemic even worse because of the prescription painkillers that would flood in.
“[The] CBO’s savings analysis does not account for the magnitude of the threat and resource needs to ensure patient safety,” Campbell said.
Wakana also dismissed these statements.
“They use any scare tactics they can use to keep drug prices high,” he said.
Wakana added that the opioid crisis has been fueled in part by the pharmaceutical industry.
“They have taken no responsibility and then use the epidemic to take cover,” he said.
Wakana said his organization supports the drug importation legislation as well as the CREATES Act introduced in Congress last year that would close loopholes that supporters say allow pharmaceutical companies to raise prices.
Wakana said he hopes Congress and the White House will work together this year to lower prescription drug prices.
He said President Trump has talked a lot about high prescription drug costs but so far hasn’t done much about it.
“I have seen a lot of bluster but little action about high drug prices,” Wakana said.