Sen. Bernie Sanders

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) speaks to reporters after a Senate luncheon at the U.S. Capitol on November 28, 2023.

(Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc. via Getty Images)

Sanders Launches Probe of 'Outrageously Overpriced' Ozempic and Wegovy

The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee chair said that the popular medications "will not do any good for the millions of patients who cannot afford them."

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders on Wednesday opened an investigation into an "outrageously overpriced" medication manufactured by a Denmark-based company whose value by market capitalization is larger than the Scandinavian country's gross domestic product.

Sanders (I-Vt.), who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, sent a letter to Lars Fruergaard Jørgensen, CEO of Novo Nordisk. The company makes semaglutide, a glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) agonist used to treat Type 2 diabetes under the brand name Ozempic and, when sold as Wegovy, to treat obesity in adults with at least one weight-related comorbidity.

"The scientists at Novo Nordisk deserve great credit for developing these drugs that have the potential to be a game-changer for millions of Americans struggling with Type 2 diabetes and obesity," Sanders acknowledged. "As important as these drugs are, they will not do any good for the millions of patients who cannot afford them."

"Further, if the prices for these products are not substantially reduced they also have the potential to bankrupt Medicare, Medicaid, and our entire healthcare system," he added.

Sanders continued:

Today, Novo Nordisk is charging patients in the United States up to 15 times more for Ozempic and Wegovy than it charges patients in Canada, Europe, or Japan. For example, your company charges $969 in the United States for one month of Ozempic but just $155 in Canada and just $59 in Germany. Further, Novo Nordisk charges Americans $1,349 for one month Wegovy but just $140 in Germany and just $92 in the United Kingdom.

"Meanwhile," the senator noted, "researchers at Yale University estimate that both of these drugs can be profitably manufactured for less than $5 a month."

"The result of these astronomically high prices is that Ozempic and Wegovy are out of reach for millions of Americans who need them," Sanders said. "Unfortunately, Novo Nordisk's pricing has turned drugs that could improve people's lives into luxury goods, all while Novo Nordisk made over $12 billion in profits last year—up 76% from 2021. That is unacceptable."

As of March 2024, Novo Nordisk was Europe's most highly valued company by market capitalization. Its $554 billion market cap is significantly higher than Denmark's annual gross domestic product of approximately $410 billion, according to International Monetary Fund figures.

Sanders also pointed out that Novo Nordisk is charging different prices for Ozempic and Wegovy, even though they're "the exact same drug."

"Novo Nordisk charges Americans with obesity nearly $400 more every month than those with Type 2 diabetes for the same product provided in similar doses," he wrote.

"The unjustifiably high prices of Ozempic and Wegovy are already straining the budgets of Medicare and Medicaid and severely limiting access for patients who need these drugs," the letter says. "Last year, researchers at Vanderbilt University's Department of Health Policy and the University of Chicago's Department of Medicine estimated in the New England Journal of Medicine that it would cost Medicare over $150 billion a year to cover Wegovy and other similar weight loss drugs."

"To put this in perspective, the cost of all retail prescription drugs covered by Medicare in 2022 was less than $130 billion," Sanders added.

"As chairman of the committee, I am asking Novo Nordisk to substantially reduce the price of Ozempic and Wegovy so that these important drugs can be available to Americans with Type 2 diabetes and obesity," he wrote.

Existing law empowers the government to step in to lower drug prices in service of the public interest. Under the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980—legislation meant to promote the commercialization and public availability of government-funded inventions—federal agencies reserve the right to "march in" and authorize price-lowering generic alternatives to patented medications developed with public funding.

However, U.S. administrations—including President Joe Biden's—have been loath to exercise "march-in" rights.

Under pressure from the public and lawmakers led by Sanders, Novo Nordisk last year announced that it would cut prices by up to 75% for some of its insulin products.

Responding to Wednesday's letter, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America—Big Pharma's leading lobbyist—accused Sanders of "attacking an innovative company to advance a political agenda instead of addressing the real cause of affordability challenges."

Noting Novo Nordisk's bigger-than-Denmark market cap, Warren Gunnels, the HELP Committee's majority staff director, wrote on social media that the company "made over $12 billion in profits last year by, among other things, charging Americans $969 for Ozempic while it can be purchased for $59 in Germany and costs $5 to make."

"Our political agenda is to end this greed," he added. "Guilty. As. Charged."

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