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Lowering the Cost of Prescription Drugs

Mr. President: Let’s be clear. There is significant discontent in our country today. The American people are worried about COVID, but they’re worried about much more.

They’re worried about inflation – the price of food and gas and other products.

They’re worried about climate change and the kind of planet they’ll be leaving their kids and future generations.

They’re worried about a middle class whose real inflation accounted for wages have not risen in almost 50 years and the reality that half of our workforce lives paycheck to paycheck.

They’re worried about the massive level of income and wealth inequality that we are experiencing in which, during this pandemic alone, the billionaire class saw an increase in their wealth by some $2 trillion while thousands of workers died doing their jobs.

They’re worried that their kids are not getting quality childcare or a decent education or that they’re unable to pay the outrageous levels of student debt that they acquired because they chose to go to college.

And, Mr. President, maybe above all else, the American people are outraged that in the midst of all of the crises that we face their elected officials are not responding.

In my view, now is the time to tell the American people that Congress understands their pain and that we are prepared to fight for working people against the greed of the powerful special interests who wield so much power over the economic and political life of the nation.

And today, Senator Klobuchar and I are going to focus on one of the many issues that must be addressed by Congress.

Mr. President: For decades, decades, members of both political parties have come to the floor of the Senate and the House, bemoaning the high cost of prescription drugs in this country and promising the American people that they would lower those outrageous prices. They have given speech after speech and spent millions on 30 second campaign ads telling their constituents all that they were going to do to take on the pharmaceutical industry.

And for decades they have failed to deliver.

They have failed to deliver under Democratic leadership and they have failed to deliver under Republican leadership.

They have failed to deliver because of the greed of the pharmaceutical industry – which today may well be the most powerful corporate interest in America and is certainly the dominant political force here in Washington, DC.

My fellow Americans: Do you want to know why you’re paying the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs, sometimes 10 times more for the same exact drug that is sold in Canada and other countries?

Do you want to know why 1 out of 4 Americans are unable to afford the prescription drugs their doctors prescribe?

Do you want to know why thousands of Americans die every year because they can’t afford their medicine?

Do you know why millions of diabetic Americans actually ration their insulin?

I will tell you why. During the past 20 years, the pharmaceutical industry has spent over $4.5 billion on lobbying and hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign contributions.

These are campaign contributions which go to Republicans. These are campaign contributions that go to Democrats. And I’m talking about hundreds of members of the House and Senate.

Further, the pharmaceutical industry has, over the years, mounted an unprecedented lobbying effort in Washington and in states all over this country.

I want you to hear this. Last year alone, the pharmaceutical industry hired more than 1,700 well-paid lobbyists to Capitol Hill to protect their interests —including the former congressional leaders of both major political parties. Got that? That’s over 3 pharmaceutical industry lobbyists for every Member of Congress.

And what is the result of all that lobbying and all those campaign contributions? The answer is clear. The pharmaceutical industry in America, uniquely in the entire world, is able to raise prices to any level that they want any time that they want.

Tomorrow, if you walk into your pharmacy the price of the medicine you take could be much higher than it was yesterday. And the reason? Nothing more complicated than the drug companies simply wanting to make more money.

And boy is that working. Eight of the largest drug companies in the United States made nearly $50 billion in profits in 2020, while the CEOs in those pharmaceutical giants took home over $350 million in total compensation.

Let me repeat that. The 8 largest drug companies in the U.S. made nearly $50 billion in profits while paying their CEOs over $350 million in compensation in 2020.

Let’s be very clear. The overriding motivation of the pharmaceutical industry is greed.

Their overriding goal is to make as much money as they can by squeezing as much as they possibly can out of the sick, out of the elderly and out of the desperate.

Let me give you just a few examples of the greed within the pharmaceutical industry.

Just a few years ago, the former CEO of Gilead became a billionaire by charging a thousand dollars for the hepatitis C drug Sovaldi. As is often the case, the drug was developed by taxpayer dollars at the VA. The drug costs just $1 to manufacture and can be purchased in India for all of $4.

In 2016, the chairman of Mylan, received a $164 million compensation package after his company jacked-up the price of an EpiPen by 550 percent over a nine-year period.

Mr. President: All over this country, the American people are asking a simple question:

How many people need to die, how many people need to get unnecessarily sicker before Congress is prepared to take on the greed of the prescription drug industry?

Enough is enough. A life-saving prescription drug does not mean anything if you cannot afford to buy that drug.

We cannot allow the pharmaceutical industry to charge the American people, by far, the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs.

That is why I have introduced legislation today with Senator Klobuchar that would cut the price of prescription drugs under Medicare in half.

And it would do that by making sure that Medicare pays the same low prices for prescription drugs as the VA does.

Mr. President: Why is it that the VA pays so much less for prescription drugs than Medicare? The answer is simple.

While the VA has been able to negotiate with the pharmaceutical industry for the past 30 years, Congress banned Medicare by law from doing anything to lower prescription drug prices.

And the result is that, according to the non-partisan Government Accountability Office, Medicare pays twice as much for the same exact prescription drugs as the VA.

Let me repeat that. Medicare, which is banned by law from negotiating with the pharmaceutical industry, pays twice as much for the same exact prescription drugs as the VA, which has been negotiating for lower prices for the past 30 years.

That is totally absurd.

If the VA can negotiate with the pharmaceutical companies to substantially reduce the price of prescription drugs, you know what? We can require Medicare to receive the same exact prices that the VA pays for prescription drugs. And when we do that, we could save Medicare some $900 billion over the next decade.

And, Mr. President, the VA is not the only agency that negotiates for lower drug prices. This is something that every other major country on the planet does.

Mr. President: As you may know, on two occasions, I have taken Americans over the border to Canada to purchase prescription drugs. In one case, it was the breast cancer drug tamoxifen. In the other case, it was the insulin needed by diabetics.

In both cases, they were able to purchase these desperately needed prescription drugs for one-tenth of the price that they were paying in the United States. I will never forget the tears that were shed when these people, fighting life threatening illnesses were able to buy their medicine for a tiny fraction of the price that they were paying in the U.S.

There is no rational reason, other than greed, for the pharmaceutical industry to charge the American people $98.70 for a standard unit of insulin that can be purchased in the United Kingdom for just $7.52.

There is no rational reason, other than greed, for the pharmaceutical industry to charge the American people $242 for the asthma inhaler – Flovent Diskus – that can be purchased for just $27 in Canada.

There is no rational reason, other than greed, for the pharmaceutical industry to charge the American people $686 for 2 EpiPens that can be purchased in Australia for just $169.

And let’s be clear. These are the same medications, manufactured by the same companies, in the same factories – that are all available in Canada, in Europe, in Australia and in Japan for a fraction of the price.

For far too long, it has not been Congress that has been regulating the pharmaceutical industry. It has been the pharmaceutical industry that has been regulating Congress.

Well, those days will be coming to an end if Members of Congress finally have the courage to stand up to the power of the pharmaceutical industry.

And that is exactly what the American people want us to do.

According to an October 2021 poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 83% of the American people want Medicare to negotiate with the pharmaceutical industry to lower the price of prescription drugs.

According to a July 2021 poll by Gallup, 81% of the American people believe that Medicare should be empowered to negotiate for lower prescription drug prices and 77% of the American people believe that the federal government should limit price hikes on all prescription drugs.

Mr. President. The time for talk is over. The time to act is now. It’s time for the Senate to have a debate and a vote to bring down the outrageous price of prescription drugs.

So, Mr. President, as if in Legislative Session, I ask unanimous consent that at a time to be determined today by the Majority Leader, following consultation with the Republican Leader, the Senate proceed to the consideration of S.3615, which was introduced earlier today, that there be 2 hours for debate equally divided, that upon the use or yielding back of time, the bill be read a third time, and the Senate vote on passage of the bill, without intervening action or debate.

Sanders’ remarks on the floor of the senate.