Bernie Sanders Plans War on Big Pharma as HELP Chairman

By Joseph Lord
Joseph Lord
Joseph Lord
Joseph Lord is a congressional reporter for The Epoch Times.
January 30, 2023Updated: January 31, 2023

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is planning for a war on major pharmaceutical manufacturers as the new chairman of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee.

Sanders, one of the most outspokenly left-wing voices in the more moderate upper chamber, was picked to chair the Democrats’ side of the HELP Committee, which was previously chaired by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.).

“As the new chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, I am going to do everything I can to protect the needs of the struggling working class,” Sanders said in a video uploaded to Twitter, in which he previewed his plans for the committee.

Sanders’ comments across several statements indicate that prescription drug pricing will be one of the HELP Committee’s primary goals during the 118th Congress.

“[We’re] going to take on the greed of the pharmaceutical industry, who charge us the highest prices in the world, to lower those prices,” Sanders said in the video.

He continued, “We’re gonna expand healthcare in this country,” adding “Our ultimate goal is healthcare for all through a Medicare for All single-payer system.”

Sanders, 81, who mounted presidential bids in 2016 and 2020, has long pushed for a substantial reworking of U.S. healthcare policy, and has glowingly endorsed single-payer healthcare systems in the strain of Canada or the UK. Sanders has often described the current U.S. healthcare system as fundamentally broken.

In September 2022, prior to his selection as HELP chairman, Sanders reiterated calls for the adoption of “Medicare for All.”

“The American people remain deeply concerned about an issue that by definition touches every single one of us—and that is our collapsing and dysfunctional healthcare system,” Sanders said in a speech on the Senate floor at the time.

Speaking to reporters in the hallways of Capitol Hill, Sanders said, “We’re working on a strategy right now that will be very aggressive.”

In an op-ed for Fox News lambasting “the unprecedented corporate greed of the pharmaceutical industry,” Sanders laid out his own plans for the HELP Committee, indicating that combatting rising prescription drug prices will be a key priority for the Vermont Independent.

“On one of the most important matters facing our country the American people—Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Progressives, Conservatives—could not be more united,” Sanders wrote. “And that is the need to take on the unprecedented corporate greed of the pharmaceutical industry and to substantially lower the outrageously high price of prescription drugs.”

“Today, millions of Americans are making the unacceptable choice between feeding their families or buying the medicine they need,” he continued. “Seniors from Vermont to Alaska are forced to split pills in half and many have died because they did not have enough money to fill their prescriptions.

“All over this country, the American people are asking why it is that they pay, by far, the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs?”

The reason for these high prices, Sanders contended, is the pharmaceutical industry, who has spent billions on lobbying Congress over the past several decades.

“How is it that in Canada and other major countries the same medications manufactured by the same companies, sold in the same bottles are available for a fraction of the price that we pay in the United States?” Sanders wrote. “The answers can be summed up in three words: Follow the money.”

Sanders noted that over the past 25 years, Big Pharma has spent $8.5 billion on lobbying Congress, in addition to $745 million in campaign contributions, with three pharmaceutical lobbyists for every three members of Congress.

He continued: “Over the past decade, 14 major pharmaceutical companies spent $747 billion not to make life-saving drugs more affordable, but to make their wealthy shareholders richer by buying back their own stock and handing out huge dividends—a sum that is $87 billion more than what they spent on research and development.”

‘Limitless Greed’

He listed out a series of instances of “greed within the pharmaceutical industry,” which he described as “limitless.”

Recently, Moderna announced its intention to raise the price of the COVID-19 vaccine to $130 when it goes to commercial market, this coming after U.S. taxpayers footed the $1.7 billion bill to pay for the research and development of the vaccine.

“As a result, Moderna made $19 billion in profits over the past two years and its CEO [Stephane Bancel] became a billionaire who is now worth over $6 billion,” Sanders wrote. “What is Moderna doing to thank the American taxpayer for their generous support? It plans to raise the price of the COVID-19 vaccine by 400 percent up to $130 when it goes on the commercial market. Meanwhile, it costs just $2.85 to manufacture the product.”

Sanders also pointed to the hepatitis C drug Sovaldi, a drug which cost $1 to manufacture but which was sold by Gilead for $1,000.

Likewise, Japanese pharmaceutical company Astellas raised the cost of Xtandi, a prostate cancer drug, to $190,000, despite the fact that, as in the case of Moderna, taxpayers footed the R&D bill.

Finally, Sanders turned to the most commonly-referenced drugs: insulin.

When insulin was discovered by Sir Frederick G. Banting in 1921, the rights to the drug were sold off for pennies of what it was worth. Banting explained his decision to give away the patent.

“Insulin does not belong to me, it belongs to the world,” he said.

Prior to the discovery of insulin, diabetes was a death sentence. But since Banting’s discovery of the miracle chemical, its price has risen far beyond that dreamed of by Banting.

To pull this coup off, pharmaceutical companies realized that, while the drug itself could not be patented, the dispenser could. Without the specialized dispensers, insulin must be constantly cooled to avoid the chemical breaking down; the dispensers also do away with the need for large, painful needles to deliver the drug.

Data compiled by GoodRX shows a massive difference in cost for insulin itself and the dispensers: on average, the price of insulin does not exceed $0.40; however, dispensers can go for nearly $400 for some kinds.

What’s Next

The Senate as a body has the power to subpoena individuals and organizations for documents and information, a power that usually is wielded largely by whichever party is in the majority.

During the last Congress, the upper chamber was evenly split, forcing Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to agree to a power-sharing arrangement with Republicans.

Because committee representation is roughly proportional to how many seats a party has in the upper chamber as a whole, the even division of the Senate meant that committees, including the HELP Committee, were evenly split. This in turn meant that for bills or executive nominees to leave committee for a floor vote, the bill or nominee had to first be approved by a majority of the full Senate.

In practice, this often meant tie votes on bills in committee.

Now, with Democrats expanding their hold on the Senate to 51 votes after Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) beat out Dr. Mehmet Oz, this will no longer be the case, as Democrats will hold a one-seat majority in committees.

Still, this does not mean that Sanders’ aspirational goals as HELP chairman will come to fruition.

As with most every bill, any proposed healthcare bill from Sanders would need the consent of at least 60 senators to pass to a simple-majority floor vote. This is consent Republicans likely will withhold.

In addition, GOP control of the lower chamber means that it will be even more difficult for Sanders’ to pass substantive healthcare legislation without reaching some kind of compromise with Republicans.