Senators grill pharma execs for raising drug prices, protecting patents 'like Gollum with his ring'

  • Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden calls out drug giant AbbVie for raising the price of its blockbuster rheumatoid arthritis drug Humira.
  • He says the company doubled the price of a 12-month supply for the drug to $38,000 from $19,000 over the course of six years.
  • "Can the patients opt for a less expensive alternative? They can't, because AbbVie protects the exclusivity of Humira like Gollum with his ring," he says.
(L-R) Richard A. Gonzalez, chairman and CEO of AbbVie Inc., Pascal Soriot, executive director and CEO of AstraZeneca, Giovanni Caforio, chairman of the board and CEO of Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., Jennifer Taubert, executive vice president and worldwide chairman of Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Johnson & Johnson, Kenneth C. Frazier, chairman and CEO of Merck & Co. Inc., Albert Bourla, CEO of Pfizer, and Olivier Brandicourt, CEO of Sanofi testify in front of the Senate Finance Committee on 'Drug Pricing in America: A Prescription for Change, Part II' on February 26, 2019 in the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, DC.
Win McNamee | Getty Images
(L-R) Richard A. Gonzalez, chairman and CEO of AbbVie Inc., Pascal Soriot, executive director and CEO of AstraZeneca, Giovanni Caforio, chairman of the board and CEO of Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., Jennifer Taubert, executive vice president and worldwide chairman of Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Johnson & Johnson, Kenneth C. Frazier, chairman and CEO of Merck & Co. Inc., Albert Bourla, CEO of Pfizer, and Olivier Brandicourt, CEO of Sanofi testify in front of the Senate Finance Committee on 'Drug Pricing in America: A Prescription for Change, Part II' on February 26, 2019 in the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, DC.

The Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday grilled senior executives from seven of the largest pharmaceutical companies for raising the list price of prescription drugs in the U.S.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore, the ranking member on the committee, called out drug giant AbbVie for raising the price of its blockbuster rheumatoid arthritis drug Humira. He said the company doubled the price of a 12-month supply for the drug to $38,000 from $19,000 over the course of six years.

"Can the patients opt for a less expensive alternative? They can't, because AbbVie protects the exclusivity of Humira like Gollum with his ring. Thick cobwebs of patents and shadowy deals with drugmakers, all of them are in place to keep the cash flowing," Wyden said, referring to the slimy "Lord of the Rings" character who coveted the ring of power.

Executives of AbbVie, AstraZeneca, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, Pfizer and Sanofi were testifying before the committee at a hearing called "Drug Pricing in America: A Prescription for Change, Part II."

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., asked AbbVie CEO Richard Gonalez why the company doesn't offer the same price on its best-selling drug, Humira, to patients in the U.S. as it does overseas.

"Because Humira plays a very important role in AbbVie's overall funding of R&D," he said.

Congress and President Donald Trump's administration have made lowering drug prices one of their top priorities. The committee, led by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, argues that prescription drug costs, which totaled more than $333 billion in 2017, are too high and the pace of drug price increases is "unsustainable."

The pharma leaders criticized middlemen, including pharmacy benefit managers, for pocketing discounts instead of passing them along to patients. In written testimony submitted ahead of the hearing, the companies threw their support behind a number of Trump administration proposals and pitched some of their own ideas, including changes to Medicare.

But none of the seven drugmakers committed to, or even suggested, lowering the list prices of their drugs. Some referenced these prices as simply the price that's advertised, not what consumers actually pay.

AbbVie has nearly doubled the price since 2014 of Humira, which is used to treat arthritis, plaque psoriasis and Crohn's disease, among other diseases, according to a review of data provided by Rx Savings Solutions. The drug now carries a list price of more than $60,000 per year. Sanofi has increased the price of its long-acting insulin Lanctus 48 percent since 2014, according to data from Rx Savings Solutions.

The companies all agreed that public perception is taken into account when pricing drugs.

When asked whether they support a Trump administration proposal that would pass an estimated $29 billion in rebates paid to pharmacy benefit managers to consumers during the hearing, all the drugmakers said, "yes."

AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot said he would "go a step further," saying, "if rebates were removed from the commercial sector as well, we would definitely reduce our list price."