Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) couldn’t catch all of President-elect Donald Trump’s circus of a press conference on Wednesday. The Senate is bombarded with confirmation hearings, and like other senators, Sanders was prepping for a marathon “vote-a-rama” session that will set congressional budget priorities for the next year.
But one line caught the progressive senator’s attention: Trump’s claim that the prescription drug industry is “getting away with murder.”
“We have to … create new bidding procedures for the drug industry, because they’re getting away with murder,” Trump told reporters. “Pharma has a lot of lobbies, a lot of lobbyists and a lot of power ... we’re the largest buyer of drugs in the world, and yet we don’t bid properly. And we’re going to start bidding and save billions of dollars.”
“You know what?” Sanders told The Huffington Post in an interview. “He’s right. And I’ve been saying that for years,” Sanders added. “Pharma does get away with murder. Literally murder. People die because they can’t get the prescription drugs they need.”
“Sometimes he copies my statements,” Sanders added. “I don’t know if he got that one from me.”
Sanders isn’t holding his breath on Trump’s pledge. And he’s not very confident Trump actually understands the plan he dashed off in the press conference. But Sanders said Trump was generally right about the pharmaceutical industry’s power. “He said something else about pharma having a huge number of lobbyists. It’s true. Pharma does have lobbyists all over the country, not just in Washington. These people are horrific. They just spent $130 million in California to defeat legislation that would lower prescription drug prices in California.”
Prescription drug price hikes are driven by monopolies the government grants to developers of new drugs in the form of patents and other intellectual property protections. Since nobody else is allowed to produce the drug, the firm is immunized from competition, which would lower prices. This is a particularly severe issue for life-saving drugs, since patients will literally die without access and will pay whatever they can to survive.
Pharmaceutical companies have the highest profit margins of any industry in the world. Prescription drug prices are increasing by an average of over 18 percent per year, with the cost of widely used specialty treatments surging by more than $53,000 per patient per year in 2013 alone.
That means “bidding” will only work in cases where there are multiple types of drugs available to treat the same condition. It’s not nothing, but it’s a relatively small piece of the problem.
“He means ‘negotiating,’” Sanders said. “And if he’s up for negotiating, of course we have to do that. The VA does that and their prices are lower than for Medicare and other government agencies.” Medicare is barred by law from negotiating lower prices with drug companies. Even with a monopoly, the sheer purchasing power of a program like Medicare can force firms to accept lower prices.
The idea is popular ― 93 percent of Democrats and 68 percent of Republicans support allowing Medicare to negotiate with drug companies for lower costs, according to a poll last year conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation. A 2015 study by Carleton University and Public Citizen concluded that if Medicare paid the same prices currently available to the Veterans Health Administration, the government would save up to $16 billion a year.
Pharmaceutical companies argue that patents and other monopoly powers are necessary to fund their research. Without these protections, they say, fewer new treatments would be developed, undermining public health. But most new drugs rely also on government-funded research during the development process, and Sanders has proposed other models to encourage innovation. Every year, he introduces legislation to replace patent monopolies with a system of competitive prizes. The better your drug, the bigger your prize, but no long-term monopoly. It never passes, and Republicans are not its only opponents. President Barack Obama was a staunch ally of big drug companies throughout his tenure in the White House, to the chagrin of humanitarian groups including Doctors Without Borders.
Sanders said he plans to give congressional Republicans a chance to decide whether they want to side with their incoming president or the pharmaceutical industry Wednesday night. During the spree of votes outlining federal budget priorities, he plans to offer an amendment that would allow the U.S. to import prescription drugs from other countries with robust regulatory regimes, including Canada and the United Kingdom. Since those countries negotiate with Big Pharma, their costs are lower, and importing the medicine from abroad would cut costs. The amendment would be nonbinding, but establish the policy as a budget priority.
“The question is whether Trump and his Republican colleagues have the guts to take on one of the most powerful industries in America,” Sanders said. “It’s not gonna be done, of course.”
This article has been updated to include additional polling information on public attitudes.