Big Pharma set for more Senate scrutiny as Democrats eye pricing, tax probes: report

After Republicans wrested control of the House of Representatives in November, threats of wide-ranging probes into Joe Biden and his administration quickly followed. Now, Democrats—holding the reins of the Senate—are firing a return salvo, and the pharmaceutical industry may rank among the victims.

As Democrats mull retaliatory probes into issues like tax dodging and union busting, pharmaceutical executives have surfaced as likely targets for subpoenas alongside banks and social media companies, Bloomberg reports.

Following a 50-50 split in the Senate last year, Democrats nabbed an expanded majority in early December. In turn, Democrats gained subpoena power, paving the way for tougher oversight on corporate America, The Washington Post noted at the time.

Last month, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer suggested subpoenas would play a key role in Democrats’ strategy in 2023, Bloomberg pointed out this week. Schumer, for his part, speaking at a press conference in December, neglected to specify which companies or industries would fall under Democrats’ scrutiny.

With the passing of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) last summer, plus the recent ascension of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders as chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, Democrats have been turning the screws on drugmakers in recent months.

Aside from the pharma industry-reviled IRA, which will allow Medicare to negotiate the cost of certain drugs starting in 2026, major pharmaceutical companies continued to come under fire for their tax maneuvers, pricing strategies and more over the past year.

Back in July, for instance, Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, accused Merck & Co. of dodging billions of dollars in U.S. taxes by offshoring profits on its immuno-oncology star Keytruda.

The following month, Wyden put Amgen in his crosshairs, too, alleging in a letter to the company’s CEO Robert Bradway that Amgen had paid an average effective tax rate of just 12% over the past four years. AbbVie and Abbott Laboratories were also targeted by the probe.

Meanwhile, back in December, Wyden made a “final request” of Amgen to provide information on how it shifts revenue to offshore subsidiaries. At the time, Amgen told Fierce Pharma it had “cooperated voluntarily” with the committee’s requests and remained committed to continuing to do so.

Democrats’ scrutiny into Big Pharma tactics has continued into the new year as well.

After Moderna’s CEO Stéphane Bancel told The Wall Street Journal the company was considering pricing its COVID-19 vaccine at a range from $100 to $130 in the commercial market, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre in January called the cost maneuver “hard to justify.”

Vermont’s Sanders also chimed in, penning a letter asking Bancel to halt the planned price increases.

“You propose to make the vaccine unaffordable for the residents of this country who made the production of the vaccine possible,” Sanders wrote. “That is not acceptable.”

While it will take some time for the IRA’s pricing provisions to come into play, Sanders, as head of the Senate Health Committee, has separately pledged to take a hard line against certain industry tactics.

Specifically, Sanders has said he’ll devote himself to “universal health care” and “lowering the cost of prescription drugs,” according to a spokesperson for the Senator, Mike Casca.

While none of the “sweeping reforms” promoted by Sanders like Medicare for All are “a remote possibility with the U.S. House under Republican control,” the senator’s post at the top of the heath committee gives him “an important bully pulpit from which to advance his policy agenda,” Sanders staffers wrote in a November press release.