Sanders ratchets up criticism of drug company CEOs ahead of possible subpoena

By Nathaniel Weixel; The Hill

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said he is confident that forcing drug company CEOs to testify about high prices can result in meaningful changes. 

Less than a week ahead of a planned vote to subpoena the CEOs of Johnson & Johnson and Merck, the chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee said having them testify is more than political theater. 

During a press conference Thursday, Sanders pointed to promises he said were extracted from the top executives at Moderna and Eli Lilly. 

For Moderna, the company pledged to make the COVID-19 vaccine available for free to uninsured and low-income people.  

Eli Lilly’s CEO Dave Ricks told Sanders during a hearing last year that the company wouldn’t raise prices on any insulin products currently on the market. 

Sanders is ratcheting up the pressure on drug company CEOs ahead of a potential vote on subpoenas next Wednesday.  

“At the end of the day, the CEOs make the decisions, and they have got to be held accountable,” Sanders said.

They would be the first subpoenas issued by the HELP committee in more than 40 years. 

A subpoena vote requires only a simple majority of the committee’s vote, so if all Democrats are on board, they wouldn’t need Republican votes.

“Unfortunately, up to this point, the CEOs of Johnson & Johnson and Merck rejected our invitation. They apparently feel that they do not have to explain to the American people why prescription drug prices in this country are so outrageously high,” Sanders said.  

“Now the reasons the companies have given us as to why they don’t believe their CEO should testify range from the laughable to the absurd. They really have told us the CEOs of Johnson & Johnson and Merck just don’t have the expertise necessary to tell us why they charge so much more for their medicine here,” Sanders said.

“Well, maybe just maybe, the CEOs of these pharmaceutical companies should become experts on why they’re ripping off the American people,” he added.

An attorney representing Johnson & Johnson in a statement disputed Sanders’s characterization, and said the company offered another executive that has more expertise in the pricing of its products.

“There’s no reason for a subpoena as Johnson & Johnson has cooperated with the Committee and offered to make one of its executives with expertise in the noticed topic available to testify at a hearing. I can’t recall any instance in which this committee has issued a subpoena in the face of such cooperation,” said Brian Smith, a partner at Covington & Burling LLP, and outside counsel to Johnson & Johnson.

In a statement, the committee’s ranking member Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) said Sanders didn’t seem interested in holding a bipartisan hearing “that could result in meaningful legislation,” and was instead focused on “how many CEOs we can drag to the stocks.” 

“It’s not surprising these CEOs do not expect to be given a fair shake by this committee. These companies offered to send their executives in charge of the policies in question, which could have led to a more insightful hearing,” Cassidy said.  

Sanders last year threatened to subpoena then-Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz to testify about the coffee chain’s alleged union busting but was able to reach an agreement for Schultz’s testimony without issuing one.