Amy Roberts: A tough pill to swallow
September 29, 2015
Walter Palmer, the Minnesota dentist who killed Cecil the lion earlier this summer, is probably breathing a sigh of relief this week. He’s been bumped from the top spot as the most hated man in America. The guy that seems to have replaced him? Martin Shkreli, the CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, the company that makes a drug most of us had never heard of until recently.
The drug is called Daraprim, and it’s the essential treatment for toxoplasmosis, a rare and potentially life-threatening parasitic infection sometimes contracted by AIDS and cancer patients.
Daraprim has been on the market for over 60 years. There’s nothing new and improved about it. Expensive and risky FDA testing is long over. There’s not a huge advertising component, as only about 2,000 people in the U.S. use Daraprim each year.
In fact, in the past six decades, the only thing that has changed about the drug is the company that owns its marketing rights. Turing Pharmaceuticals bought the rights to Daraprim in August and because the drug’s patent was expired and there is no generic for it, Turing had a monopoly. So the company’s CEO increased the price over 5,000 percent, from $13.50 per pill to $750. Not even Park City real estate prices have seen that kind of instant inflation.
The increase was so drastic and unjustifiable, not to mention unsustainable, millions of people lashed out. And though Shkreli was publically flogged online, the outcry didn’t stop at Internet shaming.
Hillary Clinton called for reforms in the drug market. Bernie Sanders demanded the company justify the price increase, and reconfirmed his commitment introduce legislation that would halt skyrocketing drug prices. Even Donald Trump, the champion of free-market capitalism called Shkreli a "spoiled brat" and called the price hike "disgusting."
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When Donald Trump fails to applaud your attempt to selfishly and recklessly profit at the expense of others, I think it’s fair to say your moral compass needs to be calibrated.
Of course, the criticism extended far beyond those making a political statement. Even Shkreli’s peers in the drug and biotech industries let him have it. PhRMA, the public face of pharmaceutical companies and one of the most powerful lobbies in the country said in a Tweet that Shkreli "does not represent the values of @PhRMA member companies." And last week, the Biotechnology Industry Organization booted Shkreli and his company from the association.
For his part, Shkreli proved The Donald correct and responded to the criticism like a spoiled brat. He called one reporter who questioned the increase a "moron" and the posted a series of insulting tweets to others who dared to disapprove of his actions. In response to a Twitter user who asked him how he could sleep at night, Shkreli responded: "you know, ambien."
Though I doubt he had any kind of epiphany, it’s more likely a crisis PR team was called in to fix the mess, Shkreli finally caved a bit and announced last week he would lower the price of Daraprim, however the new price won’t be set for a couple weeks.
While the public outcry over this price hike means roughly 2,000 Americans will still have access to their lifesaving medication, it’s a small and temporary victory.
It’s the law that the U.S. government cannot negotiate drug prices with pharmaceutical companies.
So now what? How do we keep this from happening again? What if the next CEO is a little more subtle and doesn’t have a Twitter account? Or only increases the price of a drug by 1000 percent instead of the 5,000 percent that jolted us? If we don’t use the drug, will we even notice?
I don’t have any answers. But I do take some comfort in my belief that somewhere in hell there’s a special corner being reserved for a lion killer and a big pharma CEO. I imagine they’ll have a lot to talk about.
Amy Roberts is a longtime Park City resident, freelance writer and the proud owner of two ill-behaved rescue dogs, Boston and Stanley.