Bennet rips into Big Pharma at committee hearing on soaring prescription drug costs

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WASHINGTON — Colorado Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet was among the lawmakers who grilled pharmaceutical executives Tuesday on the soaring costs of prescription drugs.

In a packed hearing room on Capitol Hill, Democrats and Republicans alike criticized the leaders of seven major companies — Pfizer, Merck, AbbVie, AstraZeneca, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Johnson & Johnson and Sanofi — for failing to keep medicine affordable for many consumers.

Bennet, a member of the Senate Finance Committee, told the executives, “There is not a town hall in Colorado where I don’t hear how expensive drugs are forcing people to choose between life-saving treatments or food and utilities.”

He criticized the opacity of the process for setting drug prices in a system where “nobody knows what anything actually costs.”

Bennet, who is considering a run for president, also said he doesn’t understand how federal spending goes into prescription drug development, “yet Americans can’t afford their medications.”

Republicans on the committee used the opportunity to criticize the executives, too.

“We’ve all seen the finger pointing. Every link in the supply chain has gotten skilled at that,” Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said. “But, like most Americans, I’m sick and tired of the blame game. It’s time for solutions. One way or another we’re going to get some clarity.”

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) was more pointed in his criticism of the drugmakers. He cited the example of AbbVie, whose arthritis medication, Humira, is the top-selling U.S. prescription drug.

“Over six years, the company doubled the price of a 12-month supply from $19,000 to $38,000. Can patients opt for a less expensive alternative? No they cannot, because AbbVie protects the exclusivity of Humira like Gollum with his ring,” Wyden said. “Thick cobwebs of patents, legal tricks, and shadowy deals with other drug makers, all to keep the cash flowing.”

The pharmaceutical executives, for their part, agreed that more needs to be done to bring down the costs of drugs for consumers, and they agreed to work with lawmakers to do so. They said that they’ve invested tens of billions of dollars on research and development for drugs to combat cancer, Alzheimer’s and other diseases.

They also stressed that their companies take on significant financial risk when they develop new drugs.

“[Be]cause we are tackling medicine’s most challenging problems, solutions do not come easily or without significant risk,” said Richard Gonzalez, CEO of AbbVie. “Where we have succeeded, we have been able to provide cures for fatal diseases like Hepatitis C and significantly alter the disease progression for certain cancers, lessening the burden of illness on patients and the healthcare system.”

Robin Bravender, Newsroom Washington bureau chief, was previously an editor and reporter at E&E News and covered campaign finance and energy at Politico.