PREPARED REMARKS: Sanders Senate Floor Speech on the Need to Lower the Cost of Prescription Drugs and for Major NIH Reform

WASHINGTON, Nov. 7 – Ahead of the final Senate confirmation vote today on nominee Dr. Monica Bertagnolli to serve as the Director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, spoke on the floor of the Senate on the need to lower the cost of prescription drugs and the need for major NIH reform.

Sanders’ remarks, as prepared for delivery, are below and can be watched HERE.

M. President: The American people understand, whether they’re Democrats, Republicans or Independents that our health care system is broken, dysfunctional and failing. We spend almost twice as much per person as any other industrialized country on health care.

While the insurance companies and drug companies make hundreds of billions in profits, we have 85 million Americans who are uninsured or under-insured, and over 60,000 people who die every year because they can’t get to a doctor on time.

We don’t have enough doctors, nurses, dentists or mental health specialists. And, our life expectancy is far lower than most other countries and getting worse.

Health care is a human right. And we need major reforms to the system so that every man, woman and child in this country gets the quality health care they need regardless of their financial status.

The responsibility for reforming our broken health care system rests with many agencies of government including HHS, CMS, the FDA, and the National Institutes of Health – which plays a very important role in the development of new prescription drugs.

While the ten largest drug companies made over $112 billion in profits last year and pay their CEOs exorbitant compensation packages, one out of four Americans cannot afford to pay for the medicine they need and thousands of families face financial ruin as they pay outrageous prices for the prescription drugs that keep them alive.

Think about that for a second. Millions of people get sick. They go to the doctor who writes out a prescription. And yet because of the exorbitant prices that we pay, one out of four cannot fill that prescription. How insane is that?

But it’s not just the high cost of prescription drugs impacting individuals. In the largest hospital in my state of Vermont, and I don’t think it’s terribly different elsewhere, the high cost of prescription drugs account for 20% of the overall budget which is driving hospital costs up and insurance costs up.

In other words, the outrageously high cost of prescription drugs in America is a crisis situation that must be addressed.

Adding insult to injury, not only has the federal government not effectively regulated the price of prescription drugs but the taxpayers of this country have, over the years, provided hundreds of billions of dollars in research and development into new prescription drugs that have provided enormous benefits to some of the most profitable pharmaceutical companies in America.

For example, in America today, the median cost of new cancer drugs has gone up by more than 300 percent over the past decade even though 85 percent of the initial foundational cancer research is funded by U.S. taxpayers.

In June, the HELP Committee released a report that found that the average price of new treatments that NIH scientists helped invent over the past 20 years is $111,000.

In virtually all cases, American taxpayers are paying far more than people in other countries for the exact same medicine that the NIH helped develop.

Here are just a few examples from this report:

Astellas and Pfizer charge Americans with prostate cancer over $165,000 for Xtandi while the exact same drug can be purchased in Japan for just $20,000.

Johnson & Johnson charges Americans with HIV $56,000 for Symtuza while the exact same treatment can be purchased in the United Kingdom for just $10,000.

Millenium Pharmaceuticals charges Americans with cancer $54,000 for Velcade while the exact same drug can be purchased in France for just $11,000.

In other words, American taxpayers fund the research for these drugs, but can’t afford the product they helped create.

And after receiving $12 billion from the federal government, Moderna has quadrupled the price of the COVID vaccine – a vaccine that was literally co-invented by NIH scientists – to $128, while the exact same vaccine will, through the power of negotiation, be sold in Europe for as little as $26.

Does anybody think that this process makes sense? If American taxpayer dollars helped develop a drug, we should be paying the lowest prices in the world not the highest.

That is unacceptable and that has got to change. No prescription drug, no matter how effective and life-saving it may be, is worth anything to the patient who cannot afford it.

In my view, at this very difficult moment for American health care, we need an NIH Director who is prepared to take on the greed of the pharmaceutical industry and use every tool at their disposal to substantially lower the outrageous cost of prescription drugs.

The 1,800 well-paid lobbyists from the pharmaceutical industry here in DC may not like it, but that is precisely what the American people need.

The status quo is not working. We need fundamental changes in the way that the NIH addresses the crisis of the high cost of prescription drugs.

Dr. Monica Bertagnolli is an intelligent and caring person. But she has not convinced me that she is prepared to take on the greed and power of the drug companies and health care industry and fight for the transformative changes the NIH needs at this critical moment. That is why I will be voting no on her confirmation – which we will soon be voting on.