On September 20, The New York Times writer Andrew Pollack broke the story that Martin Shkreli of Turing Pharmaceuticals was raising the price of a life-saving drug, Daraprim, by 5500% overnight. The cost of each pill went from $13.50 apiece to $750 – solely because Shkreli and Turing Pharmaceuticals wanted to make money.
First off, let’s not understate how important Daraprim is. It’s been in the market for about 62 years and has a good record of treating toxoplasmosis, a parasitic infection that can cause fatalities in people with compromised immune systems. It’s one of the most common treatments for toxoplasmosis, perhaps the only one (weigh in on this, actual doctors of the Internet), and it was just priced far out of the hands of low-income hospitals, people without insurance, and insurances that refuse to pay for things above a certain price.
Shkreli’s decision to hike this life-saving drug is pretty par for the course for pharmaceutical companies, though still reprehensible. Anecdotally, anyone can look at the cost of their medication in the last five years and see a significant hike in costs, resulting in insurances dropping certain drugs and forcing their clients to use generics or alternatives – sometimes to disastrous effect. The issue has become so virulent that in August two Congressmen, Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Elijah E. Cummings, began investigating the drug price increase. Meanwhile, prominent oncologists are calling for more oversight into the rapidly increasing price of cancer drugs, demanding that Congress allow Medicaid to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies for more reasonable prices. Shit’s getting dire, folks.
What makes all of this worse is that Shkreli (and assumedly other CEOs) simply don’t care about the real-world harm that he’s doing to people and the economy. Shkreli is quoted as saying, “This isn’t the greedy drug company trying to gouge patients, it is us trying to stay in business… This is still one of the smallest pharmaceutical products in the world… It really doesn’t make sense to get any criticism for this,” painting himself as a victim of Big Pharma on par with kids with compromised immune systems and cancer victims. He feels affronted that people would question either his motives or his actions and is pouting, wondering why the world is so mean to him. After all, he just wants to make a little money, just wants to run his own pharmaceutical company. Is that so much to ask?
Men like Shkreli are why prices increase as the middle-class shrinks. They artificially inflate prices simply to boost their own sales and pass the hardship further and further down the line. If their drug is potentially life-saving like Daraprim is, they know that people will continue to buy it regardless of the cost (I mean, they have to if they don’t want to die.). They know that people will go bankrupt to get the medication they or their loved ones need, even if they have to pay out-of-pocket because their insurance refuses to cover it.
“But why can’t people just get generics?” you might ask. Well, the answer is twofold. One, generics are not always as good as the name brand. Often, they are created by analyzing the original drug, extrapolating the structure, and then trying to reproduce it. The generic company might get something wrong or not have enough money and need to cut corners. Two, sometimes pharmaceutical companies will try to control the distribution of the drug, making it harder for other companies to get the samples they’d need to create a generic. This, in fact, is what Shkreli tried to do at his previous company, and it seems somewhat similar to what is happening with Daraprim. Hospitals have reported that it’s harder and harder to get as the cost has increased from $1 a pill to $13.50 in the past few years. They need to call up the copyright holder or distributing company and actually request more Daraprim – which can take time, be refused, get lost, or cost too much. So generics aren’t always the magic cheat code to get around grasping pharmaceutical companies.
Fortunately, Internet outrage isn’t just a few moody posts on LiveJournal anymore, and as of September 22, Shkreli has announced that Turing Pharmaceuticals will be lowering the price of Daraprim once more – though probably not back to $13.50 apiece. He credits the most recent decision to the social media coverage, saying, “Yes, it is absolutely a reaction… I think that it makes sense to lower the price in response to the anger that was felt by people.” Good to know bad press and a huge dip in stock prices still has an effect on entitled, grasping douchebags.