Democrats summon CEOs of J&J, Merck and BMS for Senate hearing on drug prices

Democratic members of the Senate’s health committee will hold another hearing on an evergreen topic: drug pricing.

This time, Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, and all his democratic colleagues on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) are inviting CEOs of Bristol Myers Squibb, Merck & Co. and Johnson & Johnson to testify during a public hearing scheduled for Jan. 25, 2024.

The meeting will focus on the “outrageously high cost of prescription drugs,” according to a release. In their letters to the pharma CEOs, the 11 lawmakers asked why the U.S. is paying the highest drug prices in the world. They also questioned why many Americans can’t afford their medicines even as pharma companies pay their executives “exorbitant compensation packages” and spend billions on stock buybacks and dividends, according to the letters.

In a release Tuesday, the senators spotlighted the prices of three drugs. Merck’s diabetes drug Januvia is priced at $6,000 in the U.S. versus $900 in Canada. J&J and AbbVie’s blood cancer med Imbruvica comes with an annual list price of $204,000 in the U.S., while it costs $46,000 in the U.K. BMS and Pfizer’s blood thinner Eliquis carries a sticker of $6,700 in the U.S. compared with $650 in France.

Over the span of many years, rising drug prices—or their discrepancy between the U.S. and the rest of the world—have become regular topics for discussion on Capitol Hill.

Back in March 2021, the HELP committee gathered a group of researchers to discuss the same topic of why drug prices in the U.S. are the highest in the world. Then earlier this year, a HELP committee hearing focused on insulin prices.

In 2020, the House Oversight Committee held a two-day hearing on rising drug prices. The same committee in 2021 questioned AbbVie CEO Richard Gonzalez about Imbruvica’s rising prices since its launch in 2013.

Of course, congressional interest in drug pricing didn't start this decade. In 2019, top executives from BMS, Merck, J&J and others joined a high-profile Senate Finance Committee hearing on drug prices. At that time, Gonzalez’s bonuses became a talking point.

For the upcoming HELP committee hearing, Sanders and his colleagues are once again spotlighting those CEOs’ compensation packages as well as the companies’ profits. As the lawmakers noted, in 2022, J&J awarded its CEO Joaquin Duato $27.6 million in compensation. During the same year, Merck CEO Robert Davis got $52.5 million in pay, while BMS’ then-CEO Giovanni Caforio made $41.4 million. Caforio officially handed the reins to Chris Boerner this month.

In a statement to Fierce Pharma, a BMS spokesperson said the company has received the letter and will respond to the committee directly. J&J and Merck had yet to respond by publication time.

Looking to further bring down drug prices, the U.S. Congress has also been targeting pharmacy benefit managers. These drug middlemen and pharma companies constantly trade blame over increasing drug prices.