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Bernie Sanders Says Biden NIH Pick Needs Plan to Cut Drug Costs

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Limited Time in Office

Research advocates and consultants said they hope the Senate can move quickly to advance Bertagnolli’s nomination, both because the agency needs a Senate confirmed director to set priorities and because of the limited guaranteed time she has to implement those priorities.

“The longest that she’s guaranteed to have the job would be January of 2025, because it’s a presidentially appointed position,” said Erik Fatemi, a principal at Cornerstone Government Affairs who spent a dozen years specalizing in NIH as a Senate appropriations staffer.

But they need to get past Sanders first, who wants the White House to commit to using the power of the federal government to lower the price of medicine.

“My hope is that the administration is working with Sen. Sanders to address his concerns about the administration’s responsiveness to drug pricing issues,” Ellie Dehoney, vice president of policy and advocacy for Research!America, said.

Sanders said earlier this month he will oppose any health nominee who won’t commit to lowering drug prices.

He was upset the NIH didn’t use its authority to seize patents to lower drug prices, which are known as march-in rights on Astellas Pharma Inc.’s prostate cancer drug Xtandi.

‘Represent the Public’

There’s no timetable for the nomination, Sanders said, who added he hasn’t received paperwork yet from the White House on Bertagnolli.

Meanwhile, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said she wants Bertagnolli to promise she won’t go work for a drug company after working at the NIH. “I expect any person who heads up an agency like NIH to make a commitment that makes clear that they will represent the public and not their future employer in a big drug company,” she said in an interview.

Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), ranking member of HELP, said his Republican colleagues are going to demand transparency and an explanation of grants to EcoHealth Alliance, which have faced Republican criticism for ties to a laboratory in Wuhan, China, and compliance issues.

Cassidy hasn’t heard from the White House but said he knows Bertagnolli’s resume.

Bertagnolli hasn’t laid out her priorities if she takes the the top NIH post. But as NCI director, she has prioritized health equity in part by setting up new screening programs. She has also worked with the Food and Drug Administration to modernize clinical trials .

As NIH director, she would oversee a nearly $50 billion medical research agency that’s faced increasing criticism from congressional Republicans.

June Vote Ambitious, Possible

Sudip Parikh, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said it’s “ambitious but not impossible” to schedule a hearing in June and a vote before the July 4 recess.

But Bobby Clark, a principal at health-care advocacy firm Pyxis Partners, said the White House needs to work toward robust bipartisan support for any nomination.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s the strategy here; taking the time to build relationships and hope for a strong vote,” said Clark, who was part of the Health and Human Services senior leadership team under the Obama administration.

“That wouldn’t only pay off in having a successful vote, but it could help further cultivate solid champions in Congress for the NIH and its work.”