Seven of the panel’s 10 Democrats, Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.), have stated their support publicly.
If at least two of the other three Democrats join them — fewer if more Republicans vote aye — Bertagnolli will advance, allowing Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to schedule a floor vote.
The agency has been without a director since December 2021, when Dr. Francis Collins stepped down.
Sanders said Tuesday that, while “Bertagnolli is an intelligent and caring person,” he does not believe “she is prepared to take on the greed and power of the drug companies and health care industry and fight for the transformative changes the NIH needs at this critical moment.”
However, Sanders said he would not try to sway the votes of other members of his committee. “This should be a vote of conscience,” he said.
When asked about Sanders’ opposition, a White House official pointed POLITICO to efforts the administration has taken to lower drug costs.
“The President shares the Senator’s concerns on drug pricing. That’s why he signed into law the Inflation Reduction Act, the most consequential law addressing the high cost of prescription drugs,” the official wrote in an email.
The National Cancer Institute director’s nomination to lead NIH has been in limbo since spring, when Sanders vowed to oppose Biden’s health nominees until the White House took more actions on reducing drug prices. In September, Sanders relented, agreeing to schedule Bertagnolli’s hearing after the federal government struck a deal with biotech company Regeneron that included a reasonable pricing clause for a Covid therapy it’s developing with federal assistance.
During her confirmation hearing last week, Bertagnolli told Sanders she would work to broadly ensure the benefits of NIH research are affordable and available, but would not commit to a specific plan to address drug pricing.
On Monday, two days before the committee vote, Sanders called for an investigation into the NIH. In a letter to the Health and Human Services inspector general, he urged an investigation into an exclusive patent license for an NIH-developed cervical cancer treatment that the agency proposed granting to a company with ties to a former NIH employee.