Biden, Sanders Target Drug Prices at White House Event

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Pictured: Hand holding an asthma inhaler/iStock, Stephane Bureau du Colombier

In a Wednesday event at the White House, President Joe Biden and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders discussed plans to lower health care costs, including drug prices.

At the event, Biden and Sanders discussed issues including patent thickets, the cost of asthma inhalers and insulin, and proposals to expand the Medicare price negotiation provision of the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act.

“We can no longer tolerate Astellas and Pfizer charging Americans with prostate cancer over $165,000 for Xtandi when that exact same product can be purchased for just $20,000 in Japan,” Sanders said.

Drug pricing is a point of contention between lawmakers and consumers who want prescription drugs to be more affordable, and pharmaceutical companies who say capping prices will harm innovation and blame pharmacy benefit managers for high costs. Medicare price negotiations were introduced in the IRA to reduce how much the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services pays for drugs under the public insurance option for seniors, with CMS being allowed to negotiate prices for a certain number of drugs per year. It also requires pharma companies to pay rebates if price changes exceed the inflation rate and created a $2,000 annual limit for drug spending per person. However, the law has attracted controversy and lawsuits.

Reuters reported that today, Biden highlighted the case of an unnamed company that he said charges $49 for an inhaler in the U.K. but $645 in the U.S. for the same device.

“Despite all that we have accomplished up to now, it is not enough. Much, much more needs to be done,” Sanders said, according to Reuters. “This is an issue that we must, must get a handle on.”

Biden and Sanders have both been vocal on the pricing issue leading up to the White House event. In recent months, Sanders has invited leaders of pharmaceutical companies to testify before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee about high prices. An initial refusal to appear in committee led the senator and committee chair to suggest subpoenaing the CEOs of Johnson & Johnson and Merck. Last week, Sanders criticized Novo Nordisk over the cost of its semaglutide drugs Ozempic and Wegovy, indicated for diabetes and weight loss respectively.

At the March 7 State of the Union address, Biden explicitly called out “Big Pharma” for high prices and expressed support for expanding Medicare price negotiations under IRA. That expansion would allow Medicare to negotiate prices for up to 50 drugs per year, up from the current 20.

The White House also hopes to expand parts of the negotiation program to people with private insurance, and in July 2023 a bill was introduced in the House of Representatives that includes these changes.

Those proposed changes to the IRA came up at the White House Wednesday, with Sanders saying he planned to “aggressively” push for the legislation. Biden also celebrated multiple pharmaceutical companies capping insulin prices at $35 as well as increased Federal Trade Commission scrutiny of what he called “abusive patent listings.”

Nadia Bey is a freelance reporter from North Carolina. Her work and contact information are available at nadiabey.com.

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