It took the Senate 175 days to confirm Monica Bertagnolli as the next leader of the National Institutes of Health after President Biden first nominated her for the role — largely because of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who blocked her nomination until he was able to extract a White House commitment to lower drug prices. The pressure campaign sparked friction with members of the health committee he chairs, including with some Democrats and the panel’s top Republican.
I caught up with Sanders over the phone last week about that effort and his vision for lowering prescription drug costs as he serves as head of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
The Health 202: Was the effort about Bertagnolli about her, or were you trying to make a broader point about the industry and the Biden administration?
Sanders: It has nothing to do with anything personal. I think she’s quite intelligent, and I think she’s a very caring person. But the point is, why do we pay by far the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs? The American people want answers to that. And the NIH has got to be part of that solution.
Sanders: I think we did send a message, and I think we already had some successes. As you may know, Regeneron, which is a major drug company, signed a reasonable pricing agreement with [the Administration for Strategic Preparedness and Response] on the development of a new covid vaccine. And what that agreement says is that if a product gets approved by the FDA and is ready for distribution onto the marketplace, that Americans will not pay a price any higher than other countries around the world.
That is a huge step forward. I want to see that expanded to other drugs as well.
So what the NIH has got to do, very simply, is to say look, if we are putting money into research and development, we’re not just going to give that product over to a drug company that will rip us off and charge outrageously high prices. What we need from the drug companies is an assurance that they’re going to price that product in a reasonable way.
The Health 202: Do you have any other goals in the committee that you want to accomplish before the end of the year?
Sanders: One of the issues that concerns me is we have a terrific, horrendous opioid epidemic in this country. I’ve been working with a number of my colleagues to think of the best way forward to make the Support Act as strong as it possibly can. And that’s something that I want to do in the very near future.
The Health 202: Federal funding for the Support Act’s addiction treatment and recovery programs lapsed in September, and your committee has yet to take up the issue despite ranking member Senator Bill Cassidy (R-La.) introducing a bill that would reauthorize the legislation. Why is that?
Sanders: Senator Cassidy and I have fundamental disagreements about the way forward. I think we have got to not simply reauthorize the modest fixes here. I think when you have serious problems — and God knows the opioid epidemic is horrendous — we need serious responses, serious legislation, that actually addresses the crisis.
So what we want to do is not just reauthorize the existing bill, but we want to substantially improve it. As we speak, we’re working on that right now.
The Health 202: The HELP committee has a long history of bipartisanship, but Senator Cassidy has been public about his frustrations with you. How would you describe your relationship? Do you see any room in the future to work together?
Sanders: On a personal level, I like Senator Cassidy. He’s an intelligent guy. But the difference we have is that I see a health-care system that is broken and dysfunctional and needs fundamental reform. I don’t believe that is the way Senator Cassidy sees it.
I will tell you I was very disappointed that we could not get his support for the primary-care health bill that ended up passing our committee. … It was a serious bill, and at the end of the day, when you invest in primary health care, you save money, prevention saves money, everybody knows that. The bill that we ended up having will save taxpayers substantial sums of money.
The Health 202: What are the prospects of the majority leader bringing your primary-care bill to a vote on the floor
Sanders: I want this bill not just to get past the committee, I want to get it put into law. We’re working very closely with Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and others to make sure that it is put into a must-pass piece of legislation.
The Health 202: Are you concerned that the temporary funding reauthorized for community health centers is set to expire Saturday
Sanders: Yes, of course I am. You know, there’s a lot of anxiety in the world of community health centers. And I’ve got to tell you, I’m very happy that the two major community health center organizations are strongly supporting our bill that, I should tell you, I think there is strong bipartisan support. You talk to conservative Republicans, they understand how important community health centers are, that we need more doctors and nurses. I look forward to seeing that bill get passed.