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Senator Hassan Presses Pharmaceutical CEOs on Using ‘Gimmicks and Loopholes’ to Keep Medication Prices Sky-High

WASHINGTON – Today, Senator Maggie Hassan pressed CEOs of three major pharmaceutical companies – Johnson & Johnson, Merck, and Bristol Myers Squibb (BMS) – about their sky-high prices for prescription drugs at a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing.

To watch Senator Hassan’s hearing questions, click here.

First, Senator Hassan challenged Robert Davis, CEO of Merck – whose cancer medication Keytruda has an annual list price of over $190,000 – about how the company games the patent system. “One way that companies do this is by filing dozens – even hundreds – of frivolous patents that lock in their exclusive right to sell their drug for decades,” said Senator Hassan. “By playing games like this with the patent system, companies block low-cost alternatives, like generics, from coming to market.”

Senator Hassan asked Mr. Davis how many patents have been filed on Keytruda. Mr. Davis said that he did not have an exact number, so Senator Hassan reminded Mr. Davis that 168 patents have been filed on the medication and that patent office records showed that nearly half of those patents refer to the process Merck uses to manufacture the drug – which has nothing to do with treating patients. “Merck is using patent gimmicks and loopholes to delay other companies from selling lower-cost versions of this medication,” said Senator Hassan.

“It’s clear that Merck and other pharmaceutical companies […] won’t stop abusing the patent system to keep their prices high, so it’s clear that we also need to take action on that, and that’s something we can do. Senator Braun and I have a bill called the Medication Affordability and Patent Integrity Act, which would help break up these patent walls, and I would urge my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to support that.”

Senator Hassan also pressed Johnson and Johnson’s CEO, Joaquin Duato, on the barriers to accessing their patient assistance programs.

“The initial application, which I have here, is 6 pages long and requires pages of additional documents for income verification,” said Senator Hassan. “Everyone on this dais wants you to charge a fair price for your company’s medications. But if someone does need assistance paying for their medication, this process has to be streamlined and easily available to anyone who qualifies.”

Finally, Senator Hassan said that making it easier for generic drugs to get approved could increase competition. She asked Chris Boerner, CEO of BMS, how many generic versions of BMS’s Eliquis – which has an annual list price of $7,100 – patients in the U.S. can get at a pharmacy today. Mr. Boerner admitted that there are no generic versions of Eliquis available.

“There are zero generic versions of Eliquis available to patients… because your company has sued to block two approved generics from the U.S. market,” said Senator Hassan. Senator Hassan added that Johnson and Johnson’s autoimmune medication, Stelara – which has an annual list price of nearly $80,000 – similarly has zero low-cost alternatives available to U.S. patients because of lawsuits from Johnson & Johnson to block them.

The hearing comes as a part of Senator Hassan’s ongoing efforts to expand access to affordable medication. Last year, Senator Hassan introduced the bipartisan Medication Affordability and Patent Integrity Act, which would lower prescription drug costs by closing oversight gaps in the patent process that drug manufacturers take advantage of to prevent access to lower-cost alternatives. Senator Hassan successfully passed into law three bipartisan measures she supported to increase access to generic and biosimilar medications. Senator Hassan also led successful bipartisan efforts to help eliminate surprise medical billing, which has prevented at least 9 million surprise bills. Additionally, the Inflation Reduction Act included a number of key provisions that Senator Hassan pushed for to take on Big Pharma and address the skyrocketing cost of prescription drugs, including allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices – which will bring down the cost of prescription drugs for Medicare beneficiaries and help drive down prices across the board – and capping out-of-pocket expenses for Medicare prescription drugs.