Senator Sanders Warns J&J, Merck CEOs Could Be Subpoenaed on Drug Pricing

U.S. Capitol_iStock, Mikhail Makarov

Pictured: U.S. Capitol building in Washington, DC/iStock, Mikhail Makarov

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, on Thursday proposed serving subpoenas to the CEOs of Johnson & Johnson and Merck. The committee is set to vote on the subpoenas on Jan. 31, 2024.

The subpoenas would force both executives to provide testimony as to why their companies “charge substantially higher prices for medicine in the U.S. compared to other countries,” according to Thursday’s announcement. Bristol Myers Squibb CEO Chris Boerner, along with at least one other pharma executive, has previously agreed to testify on drug pricing before the Senate health committee.

If approved, these would be the first subpoenas issued by the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee in more than four decades. The last time the committee issued subpoenas was in 1981.

“It is time to hold these pharmaceutical companies accountable for charging the American people the highest prices in the world for the medicine they need,” Sanders said in a statement. “As the HELP Committee considers legislation to lower prescription drug prices, it is critical that these CEOs explain how they determine the price of medicine in the United States.”

In November 2023, Sanders—along with all Democratic members of the HELP Committee—invited the CEOs of Merck, J&J and BMS to testify in a hearing about the “outrageously high cost of prescription drugs.” The hearing was set for Jan. 25, 2024.

Four pharma CEOs have previously volunteered to testify before the HELP Committee, including the heads of Sanofi, Novo Nordisk, Eli Lilly and Moderna. J&J and Merck have yet to commit.

Sanders called it “absolutely unacceptable” that the CEOs of J&J and Merck have so far “refused an invitation by a majority of the members of the HELP Committee.”

“These CEOs may make tens of millions of dollars in compensation. The pharmaceutical companies they run may make billions in profits. But that does not give them a right to evade congressional oversight,” Sanders said.

The senator has long been a staunch advocate of lowering drug prices in the U.S. In March 2023, Sanders wrote to the heads of Sanofi and Novo Nordisk, calling on them to follow in Eli Lilly’s footsteps and lower the prices of their insulin products. The companies complied and slashed costs soon after.

In May 2023, Sanders’ HELP Committee passed four new bills and several more bipartisan amendments, with the aim of boosting generic competition to control drug prices.

Tristan Manalac is an independent science writer based in Metro Manila, Philippines. He can be reached at tristan@tristanmanalac.com or tristan.manalac@biospace.com.

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