CEOs of J&J, Merck, BMS are testifying before U.S. Senate committee today — here’s what that could mean

Hearing is supposed to be about drug pricing — whether it becomes political theater is biggest question of day

Johnson & Johnson CEO Joaquin Duato, Merck CEO Bob Davis and Bristol Myers Squibb CEO Chris Boerner will all testify Thursday morning before the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee regarding prescription drug prices.

How it will go is the life sciences industry question of the day. The ramifications could be impactful.

Senate hearings often become political power plays, where members of the Senate seemingly ask questions to score points with their base rather than get pertinent information.

Gov. Phil Murphy, who praised the New Jersey-based executives for testifying, said earlier this week that he hopes it will be a substantive discussion.

“I would hope it’s a productive discussion,” he said Tuesday. “And I know the companies well enough to know that they’re going into it looking for a really substance-based (discussion), not political theater.”

Murphy said he hopes the discussions are a start to getting prescription drug pricing “in a better place.”

“I hope that the discussion also centers on the fact that there’s a food chain that leads up to the price,” he said. “So, pharmaceutical companies, for sure, but it’s insurance companies, it’s (pharmacy benefits managers), it’s health care providers, hospital systems.

“I would hope that there’s a comprehensive discussion, as opposed to politics.”

That’s always the concern with Senate hearings. Whether it’s less-than-thoughtful questions from senators (see Tom Cotton repeatedly asking TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew if he was Chinese, despite being told he is from Singapore) or less-than-thoughtful answers from those testifying (see college presidents on anti-Semitism), the hearings can stray from their intended purpose.

Ben Dworkin, the director of the Rowan Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship, said the day could be a challenge for the CEOs if some senators come looking to make a point at their expense.

“To be called before a congressional committee, especially when you expect the congressional members to be antagonistic, is never a good thing,” he said.  “The confrontation is dominated by the member of Congress, who always has the last word. The debacle with the university presidents testifying about anti-Semitism on campus was just one recent example.

“This is why most folks try to avoid it.”

There was some question as to whether Duato and Davis only agreed to come under threat of a subpoena. It didn’t get to that point, which was a good thing, Dworkin said.

“One of the things that could make it worse is to be subpoenaed to appear,” he said.

Dworkin said testimony is a chance for the executives to frame the debate — if they get a chance.

“Hearings like this are usually done for the theatrics that will generate media, and therefore the public’s, attention to an issue,” he said. “Nuanced explanation is rarely the goal.”

Debbie Hart, the CEO of BioNJ, said she’s hoping for a good discussion — one that describes all aspects of drug pricing.

“The governor got it exactly right,” she said. “There is a whole complex system of multiple players who contribute to drug pricing. It is not just the innovators. In fact, prescription drugs only account for 8% to 9% of total health care costs.

“Therefore, it is difficult to have these conversations without looking and speaking holistically about the entire system and all of the contributors to the price of drugs.”

Hart offered how the bio/life science sector, a huge part of the state’s history, present and future, views the issue.

“Our companies are committed to patients and to innovation every step of the way, and stand ready to work with Congress and the administration to ensure that patients are served around the world while also allowing the investments they are making here and now to drive future innovation,” she said.

“We sincerely hope that there will be a meaningful and substantive discussion tomorrow that actually solves for this.”

Murphy agreed.

“I’d love to think that everybody gets around a table, we all roll up our sleeves and we figure out, ‘OK, how do we get these prices back to within reach for everybody, especially seniors, and especially folks who generally can’t afford them?’” he said.

The governor spoke up about his experiences with the New Jersey companies.

“They’ve been very good partners of ours, addressing, ‘How do we make pharmaceuticals more affordable, more accessible, especially for seniors?’” he said.