Talk about déjà vu: Senators set to re-enact drug price hearing of 60 years ago


Kenneth Frazier, CEO of pharma giant Merck, is set to face senators Feb. 26 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 during the hearing – 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 Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), along with the CEOs of AbbVie, AstraZeneca, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Pfizer, and Sanofi and a top executive for Johnson & Johnson.

Hearings led by Sen. Estes Kefauver (D-Tenn.) in 1959 and 1960 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 Jeremy Greene, MD, PhD, a drug-industry historian at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore.

“Drug prices, especially at the high end, are only ever higher” since the 1960s, said Scott Podolsky, MD, a health care historian at Harvard Medical School, Boston. “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, Sen. Kefauver launched a series of hearings on business in the late 1950s. His Senate antitrust subcommittee began taking testimony on high pharmaceutical prices in late 1959.

“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,” Sen. Kefauver said in opening remarks.

The sessions, which lasted off and on until Sept. 1960, 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.


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