Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) held a public hearing today to call for the end of legal monopolies on HIV/AIDS drugs and to introduce Senate bill 1138, which includes a $3 billion prize program for the discovery of new HIV/AIDS treatments, according to a press release from Sen. Sanders's office. The senator is hoping that the cash incentive will speed the process of discovering new drugs.

Currently in the U.S., most HIV/AIDS treatment drugs are ruinously expensive. Raw Story spoke with Sanders's chief counsel and legislative director Michael Behan, who cited the example of Atripla, a combination drug used to fight HIV. Currently, the drug retails at more than $25,000 per year per person.

"Witnesses at the hearing testified that the cost of producing Atripla is about 1 percent of that," said Behan. He said that when his office made inquiries, it found that some aid agencies, like the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), buy the same FDA-approved medication from a generic manufacturer for distribution overseas at a cost of approximately $200 per year per patient.

The companies making a generic version of Atripla still manage to make a profit, he said, because the cost of the ingredients is not very high. What consumers are paying for, including executive bonuses, marketing, and other expenses unrelated to innovation, is "our inane R and D system."

Research and development divisions are how companies come up with new drugs, but sadly, said Behan, most of what companies spend that money on are "me-too drugs," copies of medications created by other manufacturers.

Our government patent system does not allow these HIV/AIDS drugs to be manufactured and sold generically in the U.S., guaranteeing a monopoly on the treatments by pharmaceutical companies. The bill proposed by Sanders creates the $3 billion prize fund as a means of rewarding companies that discover new drugs and bring them to market.

According to this morning's press release, "The prize fund that would be created by Sanders’ bill would be supported by the federal government and private health insurers in an amount proportionate to their share of the HIV/AIDs drug market."

The legislation, Sanders believes, will more than pay for itself. The $10 billion annual cost of current AIDS drugs can be produced generically for ten percent of that. Devoting $3 billion to the prize money and $1 billion to the drugs' manufacture still forwards a huge savings, he said, to insurance companies and taxpayers.

"The bottom line," he wrote ahead of the hearing, "is that the goal of our laws and policies for medicines must be to develop drugs as quickly as possible, drugs that are the most effective we can find for the diseases people are facing, and to get them out to every person who needs them as soon as possible."

The hearing panel included Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, Creative Commons founder Lawrence Lessig, Knowledge Ecology International Director James Love, Washington, D.C. Department of Health Director Dr. Mohammed Akhter and Forum on Global Governance in Health research director Suerie Moon.

(image via WikiMedia Commons)