Republicans defend drug company in spotlight over HIV medication prices

Republicans defend drug company in spotlight over HIV medication prices
© Greg Nash

Republican members of Congress defended Gilead, the leading manufacturer of HIV drugs in the U.S., during a testy hearing Thursday as Democrats blasted the company over the prices of its products.

As Democrats led by Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsBrindisi, Lamb recommended for Armed Services, Transportation Committees Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, Elijah Cummings's widow, will run for his House seat Former NAACP president to run for Cummings's House seat MORE (D-Md.) hammered Gilead CEO Daniel O’Day over the “astronomical prices” of Truvada, an HIV prevention drug, Republicans maintained that the company should be allowed to profit off its inventions.

“I just cannot understand why we are spending time sitting here listening to people lecturing companies about making money. I hope you make a lot of money,” Rep. Chip RoyCharles (Chip) Eugene RoyLawmakers from both sides of the aisle mourn Cummings Trump congratulates China on anniversary as GOP lawmakers decry communist rule Texas Republicans sound alarm about rapidly evolving state MORE (R-Texas) said to O’Day.

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The Texas Republican said lawmakers should instead focus on patent laws that allow drug companies to keep competitors off the market.

“But can we dispense with the ridiculousness of hostility toward profit?” he said.

The hearing comes amid growing scrutiny over high drug costs, with several drugmakers, including Gilead, being the focus of congressional investigations.

Truvada can cost $20,000 a year for patients in the U.S., while a similar drug is available for $60 a year in other countries, experts said at Thursday’s hearing.

Democrats criticized Gilead for charging thousands of dollars for a drug that has generated $36 billion in revenues for the company since 2004.

Cummings spoke in personal terms during the hearing, reflecting on the death of a former colleague who had HIV.

“I have no problem with you all making a profit. I want you to make a profit,” Cummings said while saying that there are people in his district who can’t afford Truvada.

Cummings’s investigation into 12 drug companies, including Gilead, has become a point of contention between Democrats and Republicans on the Oversight Committee.

In April, the panel's top Republican, Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanJim Jordan: Latest allegation of ignoring sexual misconduct is 'ridiculous' Democrats face make-or-break moment on impeachment Here are the key players to watch at impeachment hearing MORE (Ohio), wrote in letters to the drug companies that he believed the investigation was a partisan attempt to influence stock prices.

Jordan reiterated Thursday that he thought the investigations were intended to "strong-arm" private companies. 

“Rather than applaud Gilead for manufacturing this miracle drug, they wish to demonize the company for making a profit,” Jordan said.

“I fear that my colleagues are using today's hearing as a platform to strong-arm private companies making breakthrough discoveries, all because they are upset at how markets work. The reality is that while Gilead has made money on this drug there doesn’t seem to be genuine issues with access.”

The Trump administration recently announced a goal to end AIDS by 2030 by helping those at risk for infection to get on prevention drugs like Truvada while treating HIV in people who already have it.

As part of that plan, Gilead reached an agreement with the Department of Health and Human Services to donate enough Truvada per year to cover 200,000 uninsured individuals at a high risk for HIV.

But experts say that’s not enough and prices must also come down.

About 18 percent of the people in the U.S. at risk for HIV infections are currently taking prevention drugs.

“I believe that the root cause of low access is the high price of the medication,” said Dr. Robert Grant, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, who was invited to testify at the hearing by Democrats.