Katie Porter holds a whiteboard with cardboard paper circles of various sizes stuck to it during a hearing.

Katie Porter Destroyed a Big Pharma CEO Using a Whiteboard, Cardboard Paper, and Facts

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Lawmakers on the House Oversight Committee questioned the CEO of the giant biopharmaceutical corporation AbbVie Inc on Tuesday, although “questioned” isn’t really the best word for what happened. A more accurate descriptor would be “destroyed.” And Rep. Katie Porter and her whiteboard once again took center stage.

The hearing centered on an anti-inflammatory medication called Humira, which is the best-selling drug not just in the United States, but in the entire world. Since its launch in 2003, AbbVie has raised the price of the drug 27 times, and the cost has increased by 470% in less than 20 years. A single syringe of Humira now costs $2,984, or $77,586 annually.

The hearing also addressed the price increase of Imbruvica, a cancer medication made by AbbVie. Since 2013, Abbvie has raised the price of Imbruvica nine times, nearly doubling its cost to patients.

Patients on these drugs gave testimony during the hearing, describing how the out-of-control price gouging has affected them. One retired nurse who was diagnosed with cancer after a career working with cancer patients was prescribed Imbruvica, which costs over $13,000 a month. That “astronomical price,” she says, “would certainly expedite my death.”

They also heard from a college student worried about the high price of Humira, which she will have to be on for the rest of her life due to an autoimmune disorder, and from a grandmother who has been forced because of cost to skip shots of the drug, leading to “unbelievable pain.”

And lawmakers had their own anger to throw at CEO Richard Gonzalez.

Committee Chair Carolyn Maloney said that “the facts showed that AbbVie raised prices on Americans for one simple reason: greed.”

Republican Clay Higgins was upset that the price of these medications is so much higher in the U.S. than in other countries and told Gonzalez, “Your answers to the chair were evasive at best and appear to be obviously written by attorneys.”

Pretty much every member of the committee had strong words for Gonzalez but it was Democratic Rep. Katie Porter who once again took it upon herself to fully annihilate a corporate villain with the help of her trusty whiteboard and some construction paper cutouts.

Porter took issue with AbbVie’s claims that the price increase of Imbruvica was due to the costs of research and development (R&D). AbbVie didn’t invent Imbruvica—they acquired it from another company. So none of AbbVie’s money went towards R&D before the drug hit the market. And since then, as Porter gets Gonzalez to confirm, the drug hasn’t improved in any substantial way. There aren’t fewer side effects, people don’t have to take less of it, there have been no major improvements that could justify doubling the price of the drug.

So why is so much money going into research and development if they’re not getting any big results? Well, it isn’t.

Porter goes through all of the different areas where AbbVie puts its money and R&D is one of the smallest, as illustrated by colored paper circles of various sizes. R&D is a pretty small circle, as are litigation costs. Executives’ compensation is the smallest circle, representing a mere $334 million.

By far, the largest circle (meaning the largest cost to the company) is the amount AbbVie spent on stock buybacks and dividends to enrich shareholders. For that, the company spent $50 billion.

“So Mr. Gonzalez,” Porter said after interrogating him on the various numbers, “you’re spending all this money to make sure you make money rather than spending money to invest in, develop drugs, and help patients with affordable, lifesaving drugs.”

“You lie to patients when you charge them twice as much for an unimproved drug and then you lie to policymakers when you tell us that R&D justifies those price increases,” she says, pointing to the tiny R&D cutout.

“The Big Pharma fairytale is one of groundbreaking R&D that justifies astronomical prices, but the pharma reality is that you spent most of your company’s money-making money for yourself and your shareholders.

“And the fact that you’re not honest about this with patients and with policymakers, that you’re feeding us lies that we must pay astronomical prices to get innovative treatments, is false.”

If I were a corrupt corporate executive, there is literally nothing in the world I would be more scared of than Katie Porter and her visual aids.

(image: screencap)

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Vivian Kane
Vivian Kane (she/her) is the Senior News Editor at The Mary Sue, where she's been writing about politics and entertainment (and all the ways in which the two overlap) since the dark days of late 2016. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri, where she gets to put her MFA to use covering the local theatre scene. She is the co-owner of The Pitch, Kansas City’s alt news and culture magazine, alongside her husband, Brock Wilbur, with whom she also shares many cats.