Novo attempts to parry Sanders' GLP-1 pricing complaints by calling out pharma middlemen

Novo Nordisk is standing its ground after the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) committee recently accused the drugmaker of threatening to bankrupt the U.S. healthcare system with its pricey GLP-1 medicines.

In a letter to the HELP committee, Novo blamed so-called pharma middlemen (pharmacy benefit managers and insurance companies) for the steep costs of its diabetes and obesity blockbusters, Bloomberg reports

The company argued that it only keeps around 60% of the list prices of its star GLP-1 drugs in the U.S. after paying out rebates and fees to middlemen, according to the news service.

A Novo Nordisk spokesperson confirmed over email that the letter was sent to Sen. Bernie Sanders, who chairs the HELP committee, on Friday. 

Novo’s riposte comes after Sanders’ HELP committee in April launched an investigation into the Danish drugmaker over the “unjustifiably high prices” of its semaglutide franchise of drugs. The letter stated that obesity medicine Wegovy costs around $1,349 for a month’s supply in the U.S. versus just $140 in Germany and $92 in the United Kingdom. The situation was much the same for the drug's diabetes counterpart Ozempic, which costs around $969 per month in the States, according to Sanders.

As part of Sanders’ drug pricing inquiry into Novo, the Senator also cited findings of a study from Yale University that determined Ozempic could be produced profitably for about $5 a month.

But Novo and its executives have been quick to strike down those points of view.

“Healthcare systems are constructed in a very different way,” Camilla Sylvest, Novo’s executive vice president of commercial strategy and commercial affairs, said on a company media debrief last week. In some countries, patients must pay "out of pocket" costs, she noted. In others, there's a "national reimbursement" setup.

"So, it’s not possible to directly compare prices," Sylvest argued.

In the letter to Sanders, Novo also argued that the Senator’s complaints fail to account for the time, manpower and more than $10 billion Novo invested in the development of its GLP-1 medicines, according to Bloomberg.

Following the launch of the HELP committee’s pricing probe in April, Sanders laid out additional budgetary concerns in mid-May. The lawmaker’s report claimed that if half of the adults in the U.S. with obesity were to start taking Wegovy or similar drugs, total spending on the meds could outpace the $411 billion that Americans spent on all retail prescription medicines in 2022.

It’s hard to overstate just how successful Novo’s semaglutide franchise has been in recent years. In 2023, the roster of drugs—which includes Ozempic and Wegovy, plus the oral diabetes medicine Rybelsus—together generated 145.8 billion Danish kroner ($21.1 billion), nearly a 90% surge over 2022.