Merck, Johnson & Johnson CEOs agree to testify in Senate hearing on high drug prices

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., holds his news conference with Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., in the Capitol on Thursday, January 25, 2024, on issuing subpoenas for pharmaceutical company CEOs to testify regarding drug prices.

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The CEOs of Merck and Johnson & Johnson have voluntarily agreed to testify at an upcoming Senate hearing on high drug prices in the U.S., Sen. Bernie Sanders announced Friday, as lawmakers ramp up efforts to rein in health-care costs for Americans. 

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee’s hearing is scheduled for Feb. 8 at 10 a.m. ET.  

The panel had planned to vote to subpoena J&J CEO Joaquin Duato and Merck CEO Robert Davis to testify after both executives declined earlier requests to appear at the hearing. Those subpoenas would have been the first issued by the committee since 1981. 

Meanwhile, Bristol Myers Squibb CEO Chris Boerner and another unnamed pharmaceutical CEO agreed to initial invitations to testify. 

The panel will ask each executive to provide testimony about why their companies charge substantially higher prices for medicine in the U.S. than in other countries. The push to cut drug prices is one of the rare issues that has united both major political parties in recent years — though they have often backed different approaches to doing so.

Sanders, who chairs the Senate Health panel, noted that all three companies manufacture some of the most expensive drugs sold in the U.S., including Merck’s diabetes drug Januvia, J&J’s blood cancer treatment Imbruvica and Bristol Myers Squibb’s blood thinner Eliquis. 

All three of those treatments will be subject to the first round of Medicare drug price negotiations, a key policy under President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act that aims to make costly medications more affordable for seniors. J&J, Merck and Bristol Myers Squib are all suing to halt the talks, which will establish new prices that will go into effect in 2026. 

“I hope very much that the CEOs of these major pharmaceutical companies will take a serious look at these incredible price discrepancies and work with us to substantially reduce the prices they charge the American people for these and other prescription drugs,” Sanders said in a statement Friday. 

In a statement, a Merck spokesperson said “we trust that this will be a productive hearing aimed at enhancing the committee’s understanding of the pharmaceutical industry and finding common sense solutions to the challenges facing patients.”

The company had offered its U.S. president as a witness, arguing that official was better equipped to field questions about drug pricing, according to the spokesperson. But the committee declined.

A spokesperson for J&J said the company looks forward to “building an understanding of our longstanding efforts to improve affordability and access to medicines.”

Last year, the Senate Health Committee similarly heard testimony from the CEOs of Moderna, Eli Lilly, Novo Nordisk and Sanofi on high drug prices.