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Biden targets drug makers, urges swift Senate vote on price reform

President Joe Biden took aim on Monday at pharmaceutical companies he said were unjustifiably raising drug prices and urged Congress to pass his landmark Build Back Better bill to lower costs for everyday Americans.

The United States spends more than twice as much per person on drugs as other wealthy economies. One in four Americans who take prescription drugs struggles to afford them.

“These price increase are about companies looking to maximize profits, and nobody is standing up for the patients,” Biden said at the White House, after meeting two diabetic patients who spoke about their struggles to pay for insulin. “It’s enough, enough.”

Biden and his fellow Democrats promised voters sweeping drug price reform in their signature social spending bill, but agreed to move ahead with a far less ambitious proposal after facing opposition from centrist dissenters in Congress.

The House of Representative has passed the bill, which has a drug pricing provision that among other things sets a $35 monthly cap on insulin prices.

Biden called on the Senate to follow suit on Monday.

A bottle of insulin costs less than $10 to make, Biden said, yet in the US a monthly supply costs about $375 on average and can go as high as $1,000. Insulin prices have gone up by 15% or more in some cases over the past decade, he said.

“Should I buy groceries, or my insulin and other necessary supplies related to diabetes? I had to make this choice relentlessly, without relief, every day” explained Iesha Meza, who was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age 21, and who spoke at the White House before Biden.

“I was forced to ration my supply of a drug that is as vital to me as water,” she said. “I felt myself growing weaker and weaker each day.” She ended up being rushed to a hospital and slipping into a life-threatening diabetic coma.

Biden stressed that drugmakers should make profits and get a “fair return” on investments. “Right now drug companies have set the price at whatever the market will bear,” he said.

Insulin is made largely by three companies: Eli Lilly and Co, Novo Nordisk A/S and Sanofi SA

Many of the millions of US diabetics have struggled during the Covid-19 pandemic to access regular testing and maintenance to handle the disease, a Reuters investigation found.

The $35 cap, which does not apply for those without health insurance, does not cut insulin prices, instead subsidizing customers with tax dollars.

Drugmakers say the proposal would undermine their ability to develop new medicines, though insulin was discovered a century ago. A congressional report showed that top drugmakers have spent around $50 billion more on share buybacks and dividends than research and development between 2016 and 2020.

The bill will reduce access to treatment and stifle the development of new uses and improvements to medicines, PhRMA, the industry’s largest U.S. trade group, said in a statement shortly following Biden’s remarks.

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