Baldwin, other senators investigating drug companies’ asthma inhaler pricing

U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin and three other senators are investigating the “outrageous prices” pharmaceutical companies are charging for asthma inhalers, the Madison Dem announced. 

Baldwin and other members of the Senate Health Committee have sent letters to four large drug companies requesting information on new product decisions, manufacturing costs and research and development related to asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The other lawmakers are: U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.; Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M.; and Ed Markey, D-Md. 

In a statement on the investigation, Baldwin highlights the “exorbitant” prices being charged for inhalers by the companies being targeted —  AstraZeneca, Boehringer Ingelheim, GlaxoSmithKline and Teva. Each charge between $200 and $600 per inhaler, which patients usually buy every month, according to Baldwin’s release. 

“While families struggle to afford this lifesaving device, these four companies are jacking up prices and turning record profits,” she said. “No American who needs an inhaler to live a healthy life, especially children, should be forced to ration or forgo their medication because of cost. It is time we hold big pharmaceutical companies accountable for price gouging Americans.”

In a statement responding to the letter, a spokesperson for Boehringer Ingelheim said the company is “committed to advancing the discussion on substantive policy reforms” needed to benefit patients with respiratory illnesses. 

“Contrary to what is presented in the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee’s letter, on average, we provide discounts and rebates of 70 percent off the list price of our inhaler products to insurers, pharmacy benefits managers and other parties,” the spokesperson said. “Unfortunately, these discounts rarely get passed along to the patient. We also provide products free to eligible patients through our patient assistance programs.” 

The other drug companies and Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America did not immediately respond to requests for comment.  

The letters note the companies are charging much more for the same medications in the United States compared to other markets such as Europe. For example, AstraZeneca’s Breztri Aerosphere product costs $645 in the United States but $49 in the United Kingdom, while Boehringer Ingelheim’s Combivent Respimat product costs $489 in the U.S. but only $7 in France, Baldwin’s release shows. 

Meanwhile, GlaxoSmithKline’s Advair HFA product costs $319 in the U.S. compared to $26 in the United Kingdom, and Teva’s QVAR RediHaler costs $286 in the U.S. versus $9 in Germany.

The lawmakers argue “there is no reason for inhalers to be so expensive” given the “massive revenues” these businesses are seeing from these products. Baldwin says AstraZeneca, GSK, and Teva collectively made more than $25 billion in revenue over the past five years from inhalers. And all inhaler manufacturers in the U.S. saw more than $178 billion in total revenue between 2000 and 2021, according to her release. 

The senators are asking the four targeted companies to provide information on: how executive decide to add new features to older inhalers or “move patients off” old products in favor of new ones; any evidence that new inhalers provide clinical benefits compared to older products; manufacturing costs and tax write-offs from patient assistance programs; and R&D spending related to asthma and COPD. 

One in 11 adults in Wisconsin has asthma, Baldwin’s release notes. 

See the release, which includes links to all four letters: 

— By Alex Moe