United States (KaiserHealth) – Kenneth Frazier, CEO of pharma giant Merck, is set to face senators Tuesday who say drug costs are “sky-high” and “out of control.”
But Frazier doesn’t need new talking points. Sixty years ago, a different panel of senators grilled a different Merck boss about the same problem.
To a striking degree, the subjects likely to surface Tuesday – high drug prices and profits, limited price transparency, aggressive marketing, alleged patent abuse and mediocre, “me-too” drugs – are identical to the issues senators investigated decades ago, historical transcripts show.
Frazier is scheduled to testify before the Senate Finance Committee, led by Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley, along with the CEOs of AbbVie, AstraZeneca, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Merck, Pfizer and Sanofi, and a top executive for Johnson & Johnson.
Hearings led by Sen. Estes Kefauver in’59 and’60 were the first significant congressional inquiry into rising drug costs and drug-company profits. While that showdown led to new legal standards for drug safety and effectiveness, cost-control measures never made it to the final bill.
Health policy scholars say the similar hearings show just how much unfinished business remains and how well pharma companies have protected profits and limited regulation over the years.
“Every decade since the Kefauver hearings has seen at least one set of congressional hearings into the increasing prices of prescription drugs,” said Dr. Jeremy Greene, a drug-industry historian at Johns Hopkins University.
“Drug prices, especially at the high end, are only ever higher” since the’60s, said Dr. Scott Podolsky, a health care historian at Harvard Medical School. “The issues of transparency and profitability certainly have been there from the very first day of Kefauver.”
A Tennessee Democrat known for investigating the Mafia, Kefauver launched a series of hearings on business in the late’50s. His Senate antitrust subcommittee began taking testimony on high pharmaceutical prices in late’59.
“While this country has the best drugs in the world, it would appear from the great number of letters which the subcommittee has received that many of our citizens are experiencing difficulty in being able to purchase them,” Kefauver said in opening remarks.
The sessions, which lasted off and on until September’60, were “among the most sensational” hearings of that Congress, a syndicated columnist wrote at the time. Appearing were the bosses of Merck, Pfizer, Schering, Bristol-Myers, Upjohn, Smith Kline and American Home Products. Senators dug into the prices of antibiotics, corticosteroids and tranquilizers, the wonder drugs of the time.
John Connor, then Merck’s president, said he had “deep sympathy” for people unable to afford medicine. So did Schering’s boss, but he said it wasn’t the industry’s fault.
“Undoubtedly some people find it difficult to pay for needed medication. They will also have difficulty in meeting their rent and food bills,” said Francis Brown, Schering’s president at the time. “It is a matter of inadequate income rather than excessive prices.”
The executives urged Congress to create government programs to help people pay for health care, which it did a few years later. Today Medicare, Medicaid and subsidies for private health coverage cost taxpayers more than $1 trillion annually.
But drugs are still unaffordable for many. A fourth of Americans in a recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation said somebody in their family skipped doses or left prescriptions unfilled because medicine costs too much. (Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the foundation.)
Sixty years ago, as now, policymakers wondered why Americans pay so much more for medicine than people elsewhere.
One expert urged the government to publish an official list of patented drugs and their generic equivalents along with prices so everybody could see what they cost.
None of this happened. The industry fought back. Any legislation seemed doomed until the tragedy of thalidomide, a pill taken for morning sickness that produced deformities in babies, prompted lawmakers to act.
But the Kefauver Harris Amendment of’62, which set requirements for medical trials and laid ground for the modern drug-approval process, did little to control cost.
There was no need to limit drug prices, Austin Smith, president of the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association, told the Kefauver committee. Attempts to prove excessive pharma profits were “doomed to failure,” he said. Drug prices were rising more slowly than consumer prices generally, Smith said.
Smith’s counterpart today is Stephen Ubl, who runs what is now known as the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. He takes a similar line, one that is likely to be repeated on Tuesday. “Drug prices are rapidly decelerating,” Ubl tweeted last month.
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