Israeli minister condemns Sanders’ remarks on ‘racist’ Netanyahu government

FILE PHOTO: U.S. 2020 Democratic presidential candidate and Senator Bernie Sanders participates in a moderated discussion at the We the People Summit in Washington, U.S., April 1, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File Photo

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – An Israeli cabinet minister condemned U.S. Democratic Party presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders on Tuesday for describing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government as racist over its treatment of Palestinians.

While enjoying unprecedentedly strong backing from the Republican administration of President Donald Trump, some Israelis have been fretting about whether this comes at the cost of losing traditionally bipartisan support in Washington.

Addressing a televised CNN event alongside other Democratic candidates on Monday, Vermont senator Sanders said he was “100 percent pro-Israel” but proposed changing U.S. policy toward it.

“The goal must be to try to bring people together and not just support one country, which is now run by a right-wing, dare I say, racist government,” Sanders said, adding that Netanyahu “is treating the Palestinian people extremely unfairly”.

Netanyahu was reelected to a fifth term on April 9 and appears likely to build a coalition government including religious ultranationalists opposed to Palestinian statehood.

“We condemn statements like that made by Sanders, which was really strange,” Tzachi Hanegbi, a minister in Netanyahu’s outgoing cabinet and senior member of his conservative Likud party, told Israel’s Reshet 13 TV.

“The Israeli government is not a racist government, nor does it include a single racist minister,” the regional cooperation minister said.

“To be right wing is not illegitimate and it is odd that the Democratic Party allows one of its senior members to not respect the democratic choice of the State of Israel.”

Hanegbi cast his own remarks as specific to Sanders rather than any more generalized criticism of the Democratic Party.

Asked whether Israel risked being seen in the United States as a country championed by Republicans, he said: “We make every effort to avoid this danger because, indeed one of Israel’s greatest advantages over all the years was the ability not to get caught up in the political dispute between the parties.”

U.S. Jews overwhelmingly vote Democratic, studies show, a trend that political analysts say has also contributed to a degree of grassroots disconnect between the allies since Trump’s rise. Sanders is himself Jewish and, in his CNN appearance, noted his past visits to, and relatives living in, Israel.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Alison Williams)

Senator Sanders to ask why drug, once free, now costs $375k

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders speaks during a news conference on Yemen resolution on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 30, 2019. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas .

By Yasmeen Abutaleb

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders plans to send a letter to Catalyst Pharmaceuticals on Monday asking it to justify its decision to charge $375,000 annually for a medication that for years has been available to patients for free.

The drug, Firdapse, is used to treat Lambert-Eaton Myasthenic Syndrome (LEMS), a rare neuromuscular disorder, according to the letter, made available to Reuters by the senator’s office. The disorder affects about one in 100,000 people in the United States.

The government is intensifying its scrutiny of the pharmaceutical industry and rising prescription drug prices, a top voter concern and a priority of President Donald Trump’s administration.

Both the Democratic-led U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, controlled by Republicans, have begun holding hearings this year on the rising costs of medicines. Sanders is an independent who usually votes with Democrats.

In the letter dated Feb. 4, Sanders asked Catalyst to lay out the financial and non-financial factors that led the company to set the list price at $375,000, and say how many patients would suffer or die as a result of the price and how much it was paying to purchase or produce the drug.

For years, patients have been able to get Firdapse for free from Jacobus Pharmaceuticals, a small New Jersey-based drug company, which offered it through a U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) program called “compassionate use.”

The program allows patients with rare diseases and conditions access to experimental drugs outside of a clinical trial when there is no viable alternative. 

Florida-based Catalyst received FDA approval of Firdapse in November, along with exclusive rights to market the medication for several years. The company, which bought rights to the drug from a company called BioMarin in 2012, develops and commercializes drugs for rare diseases.

In December, Catalyst announced it would price Firdapse at $375,000 a year. 

“Catalyst’s decision to set the annual list price at $375,000 is not only a blatant fleecing of American taxpayers, but is also an immoral exploitation of patients who need this medication,” Sanders wrote in his letter.

Sanders joins other U.S. lawmakers in investigating the pricing practices of pharmaceutical companies this year.

Democratic Representative Elijah Cummings, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, in January, wrote to 12 pharmaceutical firms asking for detailed information on how they set drug prices. 

Democratic Representatives Frank Pallone and Diana DeGette wrote to the heads of Eli Lilly, Novo Nordisk and Sanofi, the long-time leading manufacturers of insulin, requesting information on why the drug’s price has skyrocketed in recent years.

(Reporting by Yasmeen Abutaleb; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)