Big Pharma Heads To Capitol Hill
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Criticism of America's major drug companies is one of the few areas of bipartisan agreement of the U.S. Congress. Lawmakers in both parties profess to be outraged about price increases for life-saving drugs and treatments. Next Tuesday, the executives of some of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the country will go before the Senate Finance Committee. It's expected to be a rough day for them. Nicholas Florko is the Washington correspondent for STAT, a news organization that covers health and the life sciences. He joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.
NICHOLAS FLORKO: Thanks for having me.
SIMON: Is it a little surprising they even agreed to come in?
FLORKO: Well, they really didn't have a choice, quite frankly. If a congressional hearing - congressional committee wants to hear from you, either you come in voluntarily, or they can issue you a subpoena. And, frankly, they're a lot nicer when you come in voluntarily.
SIMON: Can we assume the PR firms that are of counsel to all these major corporations have been working overtime to try and help them?
FLORKO: Yes, absolutely - not only PR firms but probably law firms that specialize in this as well.
SIMON: What kind of reception do you think they're going to get?
FLORKO: It's probably not likely that they're going to get a friendly reception. I mean, these hearings are just as much about getting information from the drug companies as it is an opportunity for the lawmakers to make a public stand about this issue.
SIMON: I imagine no legislator thinks he or she will look very good if they say, by the way, I think price increases are great. Thank you.
FLORKO: Exactly. They realize that they are going to be on TV, the nightly news. And they want to make a point about this issue to their constituents.
SIMON: Tell us about some of the figures we're going to be seeing - for example, Richard Gonzalez.
FLORKO: Yeah. They're a really interesting group. So Richard Gonzalez is the CEO of the company AbbVie. Interesting company because they are not a household name, but they make a drug that's a household name, which is Humira. You've probably seen the TV ads for them.
SIMON: An expensive household name.
FLORKO: Very expensive household name and on pace to be the most lucrative drug in pharmaceutical history. He is a college dropout. But he has worked his way up to CEO at AbbVie. But he's going to face some really tough questions about these strategies the company's used to protect this drug for so long from competition that would lower the price.
SIMON: The producer of the top-selling insulin in this country is Sanofi. I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly.
SIMON: And Olivier Brandicourt.
FLORKO: That's correct. So I call him the heel of the group because he is the one who's going to probably face some of the toughest questions. There is bipartisan anger over the issue of insulin prices. And he is sort of No. 1 target for asking questions about why the price of insulin is so high.
SIMON: It's essentially quadrupled for a lot of people, right?
FLORKO: That's correct.
SIMON: Pascal Soriot of AstraZeneca.
FLORKO: So he's my favorite of the group. My guess is if you're going to have somebody who's going to have a slightly embarrassing soundbite on the nightly news, it might be him. He's kind of known for being the outspoken one, grew up in the suburbs of Paris, has talked a lot about how he used to be in fistfights as a kid. He's actually groused to the media about how he's the lowest paid CEO in the group, even though he makes over $12 million a year. It's going to be interesting to see how he handles the questions that he gets.
SIMON: Whatever speeches lawmakers are going to deliver, is it a little too simplistic to hold the pharmaceutical companies responsible in and of themselves for drug prices? Because, of course, there's a third-party payment system.
FLORKO: Yeah. I mean, it's a super complicated area - no doubt that's going to be the line that a lot of these companies use is you have to look at others in the supply chain. But my guess is that - obviously, the members of Congress want to hear from the drugmakers. But my guess is they want to hear from others, too. So I'd stay tuned in that round to see if there's other hearings where we might hear from others in the supply chain.
SIMON: Pharmaceutical companies, I imagine, will also argue that you have to have, let's say, an increasing price for insulin so they have the money to develop whatever eventually replaces insulin.
FLORKO: Of course. The issue with that argument, though - somebody like Richard Gonzalez is going to have some trouble with that because that's a drug - his drug Humira as a reminder - that drug has been - was supposed to be eligible for generic competition a long time ago. And they've been accused of essentially gaming the system to keep their protection longer and longer. So the argument from lawmakers is you had your time to recoup your investment. Now it's time to let cheaper drugs come on the market.
SIMON: Do your reportorial instincts tell you the hearing will be fair and real in attempt to discover something or just an opportunity for politicians to get soundbites?
FLORKO: It's a little bit of both, honestly. It's definitely going to be a show. I mean, we've looked at the hearings that have happened previously. You know, you had the Martin Shkreli pharma bro hearing a few years ago. And you had the EpiPen hearing about the price of that drug. There's definitely going to be a fair bit of just grandstanding and opportunities to slam drug companies. But between the lines, these lawmakers are interested in figuring out how to legislate here. So there'll be some interesting questions, too, that can inform legislation.
SIMON: Nicholas Florko, reporter for STAT news, thanks so much for being with us.
FLORKO: Thank you so much for having me.
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