J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference

CEOs: What's missing in the drug pricing debate

Lilly's Lechleiter: Firms to make drugs more affordable
Pharma needs to rethink pricing: Novartis CEO
Pfizer CEO: Drug pricing a political issue

The public is getting overly simple arguments in the debate about drug pricing, three pharma CEOs said Monday.

The issue first took center stage last September when Martin Shkreli, then-CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, raised the price of a specialty drug from $13.50 to $750 per pill. This led Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton to say she would take action against "price gouging" if elected.

Her comments sent the entire biotechnology sector plunging.

Martin Shkreli.
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Hillary Clinton at the 2014 CGI annual meeting in New York.
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The other Democratic candidates, Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley, have also laid out plans aimed at lowering prescription drug prices.

Eli Lilly CEO John Lechleiter said Monday the public is not getting the full picture. "Some of the noise you hear about drug pricing neglects the fact that we often must pay deep discounts in a market-based environment where we're competing in many cases against other alternative therapies, including those low-cost generics," he told CNBC's "Squawk on the Street."

In another interview, Novartis CEO Joseph Jimenez said "innovation has to continue to be rewarded or we're just not going to be able to see the kind of breakthroughs that we have seen" on cancer research, specifically regarding the uses and benefits of the cancer-fighting drug Gleevec.

"We continued to show that the drug was valuable in other indications in cancer and so we needed to be reared for that innovation and we're pricing according to that," he told CNBC's "Squawk Alley" on Monday.

Another factor that is lost in the shuffle of the drug-pricing debate is how much generic drugs have grown, Pfizer CEO Ian Read said Monday. "If you look at the market, about a decade ago, 54 percent of the pharmaceutical market was genericized; today 90 percent is genericized," he told CNBC's "Fast Money: Halftime Report."