Bernie Sanders, an independent, represents Vermont in the U.S. Senate.
President Trump and other Republicans have talked about the greed of the pharmaceutical industry. Recently, Trump said (rightly) that Big Pharma is “getting away with murder.” But talk is cheap. The question is: Will Republicans really have the guts to join me and many of my colleagues in standing up to the drug companies to fight for American consumers and end the disgrace of having our country pay by far the highest prescription drug prices in the world? If Trump believes what he has said about the industry, he will rally his party to help save American lives. Here’s why.
The five largest drug manufacturers made more than $50 billion in profits in 2015. Meanwhile, nearly 1 out of 5 Americans could not afford the medicine they were prescribed. The result: Millions of Americans became sicker, and some ended up in emergency rooms at great cost. Others unnecessarily lost their lives.
It is beyond comprehension that while Americans are suffering and dying because they cannot afford the medications they need, the 10 highest-paid chief executives in the pharmaceutical industry collectively made $327 million in 2015. These executives get richer while Americans die. That’s not acceptable.
The root of this problem is that we are the only major country not to negotiate drug prices with the pharmaceutical industry. You can walk into a pharmacy today and the price could be double or even triple what you paid for the same medicine a year ago, and there are no legal barriers in place to stop these arbitrary increases. Pharmaceutical corporations can raise prices as high as the market allows. If people die, it is not their concern. If people get sicker, it is not a problem for them.
Yet, 50 miles from my home in Vermont, the same medications manufactured by the same companies in the same factories are available for a fraction of the price. A 90-day supply of Januvia, which treats diabetes, is $505 in the United States but $204 across the northern border. A 90-day supply of Advair, used in asthma inhalers, costs about $222 in Canada and approximately $464 in the United States. A year’s supply of one of the most important treatments for advanced prostate cancer, Xtandi, is sold for about $30,000 in Canada. Patients here pay about $130,000.
Outrageously, our government, and therefore U.S. taxpayers, paid for research that led to Xtandi’s discovery.
This state of affairs is unacceptable. Until recently, Trump agreed. Yet after one meeting with pharmaceutical lobbyists, the president started reversing course. Instead of negotiating drug prices down, he talked about cutting taxes for drug companies that already make billions on the backs of American consumers.
Again, this cannot continue. That is why I am introducing legislation to end this insanity, allowing Americans to buy the same drugs they receive now, but from Canada, at far lower prices.
The drug companies, with nearly 1,400 D.C. lobbyists and enormous amounts for campaign contributions, will fight back. Recipients of their contributions in Congress will tell us that allowing the importation of prescription drugs would compromise the safety of Americans. This is absurd: We can eat fish and vegetables from all over the world but somehow cannot import brand-name prescription drugs, manufactured by some of the largest companies in the world, from an advanced country such as Canada? It’s nonsense.
But you don’t have to take it from me: Members of the pharmaceutical industry say the exact same thing. Peter Rost, a former vice president of Pfizer, said in 2004 that it was “outright derogatory to claim that Americans would not be able to handle reimportation of drugs, when the rest of the educated world can do this.”
Furthermore, the United States already imports roughly 80 percent of the key ingredients in its medicines from other countries, including developing countries such as India and China. According to Kaiser Health, 19 million Americans have bought cheaper prescription drugs from other countries. To afford their vital medications, they shop online, sometimes from pharmacies that haven’t been properly regulated. Our bill will in fact improve safety by ensuring that only prescription drugs sold by Food and Drug Administration-certified foreign sellers, such as pharmacies regulated by Canada’s health system, will be permitted to be imported, protecting Americans from the snake oil some are buying right now.
The bill will also deal with the most critical safety issue: Drugs don’t work at all if patients can’t afford them.
Drug companies won’t surrender the billions in profits they receive from U.S. consumers easily. The pharmaceutical industry is one of the most powerful political forces in this country. Drug companies have spent more than $3 billion lobbying since 1998 and have many members of Congress defending their interests; during the 2016 election alone, the industry made more than $58 million in political contributions.
So we will need to fight together to get Americans the medications they need at prices they can afford. If the president meant what he said during the campaign, he will join me in this fight. It can’t wait any longer.