Rep. Pressley Grills Big Pharma CEO on Devastating Impact of Skyrocketing Drug Costs

September 30, 2020
Press Release
“We live in the richest country on the planet, yet drug prices are so high that people can’t afford to stay alive. This is about the right to live and the American public deserves better.”

Video (YouTube)

WASHINGTON – In a House Oversight Committee hearing today, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (MA-07) discussed the devastating impact of rising drug costs on families in the Massachusetts 7th Congressional District. Pressley blasted the former CEO of Celgene Corporation for drastically hiking the cost of Revlimid, a life-saving drug used to treat multiple myeloma, despite the significant taxpayer investment in the drug’s development. Across the Commonwealth, the Massachusetts 7th district has the highest rate of new diagnoses of multiple myeloma and Black residents are more than twice as likely to die from the disease than white residents.

Today’s hearing was the first of a two-day hearing on the unjust price gouging pricing practices in the prescription drug industry, which marks the conclusion of an 18-month investigation initiated by then-Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-MD). Under Chairman Cummings’ leadership, the Committee on Oversight and Reform held its first hearing of the 116th Congress on the ways that drug companies aggressively increase the cost of lifesaving prescription drugs.

A full transcript of Congresswoman Pressley’s exchange with witnesses is below.

Transcript: Rep. Pressley Grills Big Pharma CEO on Devastating Impact of Skyrocketing Drug Costs
House Committee on Oversight and Reform
September 30, 2020

REP. PRESSLEY: Thank you very much, Madam Chair. I so appreciate that we can continue the work started by our beloved colleagues and forever Chairman, Elijah Cummings, in investigating drug pricing. 

Now I represent the Massachusetts 7th Congressional District, a diverse, dynamic and vibrant district, and one of the most unequal in our country. And we certainly see those disparities play out when it comes to health and economics. 

So let me be clear, the lack of access to affordable life-saving medication is an injustice. It represents an act of economic violence and an attack on the basic principle that health care is a fundamental human right. 

Across the Commonwealth, the Massachusetts’ 7th Congressional District, which I represent, has the highest rate of new diagnoses of multiple myeloma and Black residents are more than twice as likely to die from the disease than white residents. Now multiple myeloma is a cancer that compromises an individual’s immune system and places them at increased risk, especially during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Revlimid is a drug used to treat multiple myeloma. Unfortunately, due to no reason other than greed, the company Celgene raised the price of this life-saving drug from $215 to $719. 

Mr. Alles, I appreciate your succinct answers with my colleagues and so I will ask the same from you in my line of questioning. So Mr. Alles, for the record: yes or no, do you believe that pharmaceutical companies should prioritize people over profits?

MR. ALLES: We can only do well by doing good. 

REP. PRESSLEY: Yes or no. 

MR. ALLES: We have to take care of people for us to be able to be successful. So we have to prioritize people and the medicines we develop for the diseases they have if we're to be successful. 

REP. PRESSLEY: Over profit. Okay, well that wasn't a yes or no, so I'll take that as a no. 

According to documents from our investigation, from 2009 through 2018, Revlimid generated $51 billion in net revenues, including $32 billion from the U.S. alone. 

Now to understand how Celgene accumulated such massive revenue, let’s follow the money from the beginning.

So Revlimid was developed from a precursor drug called thalidomide, which Celgene acquired in 1992.

Mr. Alles, was thalidomide a new drug when Celgene acquired it? 

MR. ALLES: Thalidomide was not a new drug when we licensed it from Rockefeller Institute. In fact, it was an old drug that had a very notorious history causing birth defects. 

REP. PRESSLEY: So it's been used since the 1950s, and in 1996, a researcher found that the drug was effective in treating multiple myeloma.

So Mr. Alles, did you know this study was funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health? With taxpayer money? 

MR. ALLES: I was not aware specifically that the only funding was an NIH grant, but I would not be surprised, in 1996, that some funding was provided by the government. 

REP. PRESSLEY: Reclaiming my time, I'm sorry, I'm running out of time. 

So then, through three different studies, researchers found that a chemical variation of thalidomide—which would later be named Revlimid—was even more effective in treating multiple myeloma. 

So later, more investigators working at the Mayo Clinic and a cancer research collaborative showed that Revlimid worked with another drug to treat newly diagnosed patients. 

So Mr. Alles, did you know these studies were also funded by NIH with once again, taxpayer money?

MR. ALLES: Congresswoman, I do not know the studies you're referring to specifically, but what I can say is that the development of Revlimid and the discovery of Revlimid in its initial form was something that Celgene uniquely discovered after that. I agree with you that multiple studies were done with academia---

*cross talk*

REP. PRESSLEY: Just reclaiming my time. It was only after these numerous, federally-funded studies that Celgene invested in the trials needed to obtain FDA approval. Isn't that right, Mr. Alles? 

MR. ALLES: The study that was sponsored by Celgene that led to the newly-diagnosed approval, the study, was a large randomized trial that was run globally that included---

REP. PRESSLEY: Reclaiming my time, because we have the timeline, which bares out what I'm asserting in this moment. It is only after these numerous, federally-funded studies that Celgene then invested in the trials to obtain FDA approval. 

So by the time Celgene decided to invest its own money [into] Revlimid, taxpayers had already contributed significantly, and your company was confident of its future billion-dollar success. 

We know this because an internal memo from your company stated as much. 

In fact, Mr. Alles, you wrote that the company’s analysis "grossly underestimated the cumulative and annual sales potential for Revlimid." 

Do you recall writing that to a colleague?

MR. ALLES: I saw that document this morning and I did remember writing that. It accompanied a paper that ---

REP. PRESSLEY: Thank you for acknowledging that you wrote that. 

So despite the taxpayer investments in its development, Celgene reported to the Committee that it does not provide any negotiated discounts to Revlimid to government health care programs. 

So this is a classic example of profits over people. 

So while the Occupant of this White House does not pay federal income taxes, my constituents in the Massachusetts 7th do. Veterans, immigrants, single parents, and many others paid to develop Revlimid and your company charged those same taxpayers hundreds of dollars to use this life saving medication.

So although you are no longer with Celgene, I hope that you will discourage the companies you advise from showing the same greed and contempt for the taxpayers that underwrite these investments.

We live in the richest country on the planet, yet drug prices are so high that people can’t afford to stay alive. This is about the right to live and the American public deserves better.

Thank you and I yield back.

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