WASHINGTON — Senator Bernie Sanders called for a new strategy Monday to encourage drug companies to develop new HIV and AIDS therapies: give them a cash prize, but not the exclusive marketing rights that make the drugs too expensive for many patients.
By creating this $3 billion yearly prize, Sanders said he hopes to open up the new medicines to generic competition immediately — bringing down the costs and changing the incentives of a system that he says is designed to keep the prices artificially high.
Sanders, who’s trying to keep up his momentum in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, rolled out the plan just days after Hillary Clinton apologized for saying Nancy Reagan “started a national conversation” on AIDS — a statement that brought heavy criticism from advocates who said President Ronald Reagan was slow to act on the disease.
“One of the great moral issues of our day is that people with HIV and AIDS are suffering and, in some cases, dying in America because they can’t afford to pay the outrageous prices being charged for the medicine they need to live,” Sanders said in a statement. “We must do everything possible to end the greed of the pharmaceutical companies and get people the medicine they need at a price they can afford.”
Although Sanders is bringing new attention to the idea in the aftermath of Clinton’s gaffe, it’s not the first time he has proposed the prize. It’s based on legislation he introduced in the Senate in 2012, and he held a subcommittee hearing on the topic that same year.
“Instead of a system where the market is manipulated to keep out all competition, companies would be rewarded for their innovation with a cash prize for their medical innovations, rather than through the grant of a monopoly,” the plan states.
Sanders said he also wants to expand the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) program to double the number of people receiving HIV treatment by 2020.
Clinton is trying to lay out more details of her plans for HIV/AIDS treatment, too. In a Medium post this weekend, she called for more research on the disease, expanded access to pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) to help prevent people from getting infected, and increased global funding for prevention and treatment.
She also wants to push Republican governors to expand Medicaid under Obamacare, which she said would help many people get treatment for the disease.
Sanders’s plan wasn’t enough to win the support of Larry Kramer, the writer and AIDS activist who blasted Clinton for her Nancy Reagan comments.
“I just don’t believe Bernie can get any of his ideas, as wonderful as many of them may sound, off the ground,” Kramer told STAT in an email.
The treatment options for HIV and AIDS have come a long way since the 1980s, with 25 different antiretroviral drugs now available. Combination pills also make it easier for people with the infection to keep up with their medications. But cost is still a barrier for many people — the problem Sanders and Clinton said they want to tackle.
The National Institutes of Health reserved 10 percent of its budget for HIV/AIDS research for many years but is reportedly letting that level of spending slip this year as some institutes have shown signs that they’re having trouble spending the money.