Sen. Bernie Sanders and dozens of his congressional allies on Tuesday introduced a trio of bills aimed at slashing U.S. prescription drug costs—which are by far the highest in the industrialized world—and reining in pharmaceutical companies whose profits depend on charging increasingly exorbitant prices.
"The time is now to stand up to the pharmaceutical industry and say enough is enough," said the Vermont senator, who is pushing to include the three measures in an upcoming budget reconciliation package. "The greed of drug companies is out of control and the cost is human lives."
"No one should be rationing meds or worrying how to pay for the next refill."
—Rep. Ro Khanna
Titled The Prescription Drug Price Relief Act, The Medicare Drug Price Negotiation Act, and The Affordable and Safe Prescription Drug Importation Act, the three new measures would dramatically alter a status quo under which pharmaceutical corporations have broad discretion to set prices as they please, with little government regulation standing in the way and minimal generic competition.
Under The Prescription Drug Price Relief Act, the head of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) would be required to ensure that the U.S. public doesn't pay more for prescription medicines than the people of Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Japan. According to a RAND Corporation study released in January, U.S. prescription drug prices are more than two-and-a-half times higher on average than those of 32 OECD nations, including the five countries named in the new bill.
"If pharmaceutical manufacturers refuse to lower drug prices down to the median price of these five countries, the federal government would be required to approve cheaper generic versions of those drugs, regardless of any patents or market exclusivities that are in place," reads a summary (pdf) of the bill released by Sanders' office.
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), the lead sponsor of the legislation in the House, said Tuesday that "in the wealthiest nation on planet Earth, no one should be choosing between paying for their medications or paying their rent."
"For-profit pharmaceutical companies have been price-gouging us for far too long," Khanna added. "Healthcare is a human right. We must make drugs affordable to every American who needs them."
In 2019, we spent $1,128/person on prescription drugs.
For the same meds, Canadians spent $879 & folks in the U.K. spent $526.
— Rep. Ro Khanna (@RepRoKhanna) March 23, 2021
The Medicare Drug Price Negotiation Act (pdf), sponsored by Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) in the House, would lift a clause barring HHS from negotiating lower prescription drug prices on behalf of Medicare Part D beneficiaries and direct the head of the department—currently Xavier Becerra—to "prioritize negotiating for drugs that place the most burden on seniors and taxpayers."
Earlier this year, a Government Accountability Office analysis commissioned by Sanders found that the Department of Veterans Affairs—which is permitted to negotiate medicine prices under current federal law—paid half as much as Medicare Part D for the same prescription drugs in 2017.
"I think it's fair to say that it is not Congress which regulates the drug companies, but the drug companies which regulate Congress."
—Sen. Bernie Sanders
"Almost two decades ago, in a new law filled with bad policies, Big Pharma inserted a single sentence to prohibit any Medicare negotiation of drug prices," Doggett said in a statement Tuesday. "Today's bill unequivocally repeals that prohibition."
The final component of the three-bill package, The Affordable and Safe Prescription Drug Importation Act (pdf), would allow U.S. pharmacies, wholesalers, and individuals to import lower-cost prescription drugs from Canada and other approved nations.
"In Canada and other major countries, the same medications, manufactured by the same companies in the same factories, are available for a fraction of the price compared to the United States," Sanders' office noted in a press release. In 2019, Sanders spotlighted the far-lower cost of insulin in Canada by traveling to the country with a caravan of diabetics seeking to purchase the medicine at an affordable price.
Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), who will carry the importation bill in the House, said Tuesday that "lifesaving drugs, like insulin, aren't helpful if Americans can't afford them."
"Enough is enough," Welch added. "It's time to end the monopoly and sweetheart deals that pharma enjoys at the expense of patients."
Sanders and his colleagues unveiled the legislation just ahead of a Tuesday morning subcommittee hearing titled, "Why Does the U.S. Pay the Highest Prices in the World for Prescription Drugs?" The Vermont senator presided over the event as chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Primary Health and Retirement Security.
"I think it's fair to say that it is not Congress which regulates the drug companies, but the drug companies which regulate Congress," Sanders said during his opening remarks at the hearing. "That has got to change. Congress... after years and years and years of talk, finally has got to summon up the courage to take on the drug companies and lower prescription drug prices in America. That is what the American people want."
Watch the hearing: