Longtime Congressman Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., is expected next month to take the helm of the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, bringing the Medicare-for-All proponent center stage in one of the nation’s most broadly influential health policy forums.
The anticipated appointment comes after the current committee chair Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., announced that she was stepping down to head the Senate Committee on Appropriations. Sanders has been on the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, or HELP, since 2007, but the chance to lead the committee will give Sanders sway on some of his most prominent healthcare policy positions.
High healthcare costs — including prescription drugs like insulin —nursing education and elder care are issues Sanders anticipates focusing on, calling the national healthcare system dysfunctional, unsustainable and disgraceful in a Jan. 1 video.
“We are living in a country today where drug companies are making huge profits while people split their life-saving pills in half because they can’t afford them,” the senator said in the video.
Congress has recently begun targeting the pharmaceutical industry and high prescription drug costs, with the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act in August granting Medicare the historic power to negotiate some prescription drug costs starting in 2026 in addition to capping Medicare Part D out-of-pocket costs in 2025.
However, Sanders called the initial negotiation powers extremely weak and “going nowhere near as far as they should to take on the greed of the pharmaceutical industry whose actions are literally killing Americans” during an August speech in the Senate.
Pharmaceutical and other corporate healthcare executives may come under fire under the HELP committee as a result due to unilateral subpoena power that would now grant several Senate committees the power to compel people to testify in Congress, with Sanders promising “a lot” of subpoena hearings in his New Year video.
Already, other senators have begun firing warning shots to corporate executives in anticipation of potential subpoenas. In early December, Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden, D-Ore., sent a letter to the CEO of Amgen about the pharmaceutical company’s tax practices.
“The American public deserves a full understanding of the extent to which U.S. pharmaceutical companies have exploited weaknesses in international tax law,” the letter stated.
Lobbyists have expressed wariness regarding the new HELP committee leadership, with several telling Politico that a Sanders-led HELP committee could lead to a slowdown of corporate healthcare lobbying and a chance for pharmaceutical companies to push back on recent changes to drug discount programs.
“This will not be business as usual for K Street. It will be harder for companies to get in and make a case.” Michaeleen Crowell, a former Sanders chief of staff and lobbyist with S-3 Group, told Politico.
But his new role as chairman of the HELP committee will also require Sanders to work across the political aisle under a divided government in a chamber with only a slight majority. In addition to a new chairman, the HELP committee will add Sanders’ counterpart in the committee — incoming ranking member Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La.
Both Cassidy and Sanders have a history of working on bipartisan proposals, although the two senators have little direct experience working together.
Healthcare agencies like the American Hospital Association congratulated Sanders on his appointment.
“We look forward to working with him, Ranking Member Cassidy and the entire committee to advance policies that advance health for patients and communities,” said Aimee Kuhlman, vice president of government relations at the AHA, in a statement to Healthcare Dive.
In addition to subpoenas and policy potential, Sanders also announced his intention to take the HELP committee “on the road” to solicit input from Americans dealing with healthcare challenges.
“I’m hopeful that there are some areas where we can find common ground and make some real progress with some republicans and conservative democrats,” Sanders said in his Jan. 1 video, “If we can’t pass these very important issues today, well, we’re going to lay the groundwork for doing it tomorrow and into the future.”