Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders took aim at the upcoming drug companies on Sunday Price increases for COVID-19 vaccines and generally high prescription drug prices. He told Face the Nation that he believes there is room for bipartisanship to lower costs for working-class Americans.
The independent senator recently called on Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel to testify before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), of which he chairs. Sanders called the hearing after the company proposed quadrupling the price of COVID-19 vaccines once shots move to the private market.
On Sunday, Sanders noted that the US has given Moderna billions of dollars to develop its vaccine. US officials have said stockpiles of government-bought vaccines could expire in the summer.
“What happens after the government vaccine stockpile runs out? These people are saying we’re going to quadruple the price of the vaccine,” Sanders said. “The truth is that (the) pharmaceutical industry is enormously greedy and charges us outrageously high prices. We have to deal with it, as chairman of the responsible committee I will do what I can.
Last week, Bancel agreed to testify before the Senate HELP committee during a March hearing. A day later Moderna called it would develop a program to ensure uninsured and underinsured people could get the vaccines for free. The vaccines will also remain free for those insured, as required by the Affordable Care Act. Pfizer and BioNTech have also confirmed their plans to increase vaccine prices to at least $110 per dose, more than triple the cost per shot that the Biden administration will incur for a bulk purchase of COVID-19 boosters in the summer of 2022 has paid.
Sanders said Sunday that members of the HELP committee “want to take a look at Moderna’s patient assistance program,” calling it “a step in the right direction.” Still, he underscored the need for decisive action in Congress as drug companies continue to initiate price hikes that often make healthcare and prescription drugs unaffordable and inaccessible.
The senator, whose forthcoming book It’s OK to Be Angry about Capitalism examines the growing divide between the rich and the working class, noted that “One in four Americans cannot afford the drugs their doctors prescribe.” while about two-thirds live paycheck to paycheck. Sanders also pointed to wide disparities in the cost of the same drugs in countries with public health systems, such as Canada versus the United States
“You tell me why we pay ten times more for some drugs sold in the United States than, for example, in Canada or other countries, while the pharmaceutical industry makes tens of billions of dollars in profits every year and their CEOs pay exorbitant salaries,” said Sanders.
“So obviously we want the pharmaceutical companies to do the research and development,” he continued. “By the way, this country’s taxpayers were spending $45 billion a year through the NIH to help with this research and development, including Moderna and the vaccine.”
When asked if he saw any possibility of a bipartisan agreement on prescription drug costs in Congress, Sanders replied, “Yes, I do.”
Citing polls of Republicans showing that high prescription drug costs “was a top priority that they were addressing,” he said he believed legislation like the Anti-Inflation Act and proposed legislation could “form the basis for bipartisan work.” The Anti-Inflation Act, which President Biden signed into law last August, reformed the way Medicare sets drug prices. Proponents have said it could serve as a guide and precursor to further, broader legislation regulating the cost of prescription drugs.
“So I think we have the basis for a bipartisan work to tell the pharmaceutical industry that they really need to stop ripping off the American people. There are a number of ways you could do that,” Sanders said Sunday. “The Inflation Mitigation Act began with Medicare negotiating prices with the pharmaceutical industry. It won’t come into force for a couple of years, so I think we should speed that up.
“Number two of all people, my good friend Donald Trump, with whom I disagree on everything, had the idea that maybe Medicare shouldn’t pay prices higher than the average of what countries around the world pay. It’s a good idea and we want to pursue it further,” he continued. “And there is the concept of re-entry. … This is simply saying if you can buy a drug in Canada, the same drug but at a tenth the price that meets FDA specifications, it should be sold at a lower price in that country.