It turns out Martin Shkreli doesn’t even deserve points for originality. I thought that was the one thing that could be said in favor of the hedge fund manager and pharmaceuticals CEO when news broke that he’d bought the right to manufacture the drug Daraprim—then jacked the price from $13.50 to $750 per pill.
Daraprim treats a parasitic infection in people with compromised immune systems—people such as AIDS patients. Daraprim’s patent expired long ago, but Shkreli didn’t have to worry about competition; given the time and money it would take another drug company to set up production and gain FDA approval, no one would bother.
So I briefly supposed there was something ingenious about the opportunity Shkreli spotted. But there wasn’t. As I discovered, Daraprim is merely the latest example of shameless price-gouging.
The leading culprit is apparently Valeant Pharmaceuticals, which, according to the New York Times, recently acquired the heart drugs Isuprel and Nitropress “and promptly raised their prices by 525 percent and 212 percent respectively.” The two drugs were purchased from Marathon Pharmaceuticals, and Senator Bernie Sanders noted in a news release that when Marathon bought them in 2013 it had increased their prices by almost 400 percent.
The Times reports that in 2015 alone, “Valeant raised prices on its brand-name drugs an average of 66 percent, according to a Deutsche Bank analysis, about five times as much as its closest industry peers.” It’s been rewarded for its efforts as “one of Wall Street’s most popular health stocks.” And the head of the company, J. Michael Pearson, is now a billionaire.
Another of the Valeant drugs mentioned by the Times, Mephyton, has seen eight price increases since July 2014, the Times was told, its cost rising from under $10 a tablet to close to $60. This mention caught my eye. It was less than two years ago I was taking Mephyton to stay alive, and writing about it in the Reader. A chronic liver condition had slowly destroyed my blood’s ability to clot, and massive infusions of Vitamin K were necessary to restore it. I couldn’t eat enough kale and parsley to make a difference—and besides, I was starting to gag. So I took a pill every second day. Mephyton is Vitamin K. And its cost astonished me.
As I wrote in December of 2013, “In August, when I filled the prescription the first time at my local CVS, it had to be specially ordered because it was so rare it wasn’t in stock, and a supply of 30 five-milligram tablets didn’t cost $340—it was $361.17. I was told this was a pretty sweet price because CVS had set me up with some sort of proprietary discount. When I returned for more pills two months later, I was charged $416.14. I was told discounts change.”
A few weeks went by and I went to CVS for more medication. Even as I dickered at the counter over the illusory discount offers, the price rose from $476 to $504.
And here’s what really hurt: Medicare drug plans don’t cover the cost of vitamins. There was no copay. I had to pay every penny.
I haven’t needed Vitamin K since my transplant a year and a half ago. But I called CVS to find out what my bottle of Mephyton would cost me now.
The druggist’s answer: $2,076.
The thing about greed is that it’s its own worst enemy. Writing in Friday’s Tribune, John McCarron observed that Shkreli’s behavior was so egregious it was causing a “mighty backlash” that might land his entrepreneurial strategy outside the law. “He had to go ruin it for everybody,” said McCarron happily.
McCarron had his own story to tell. He’d been by his local Walgreen’s earlier in the week and “winced at an $85 copay” on “a variation on a century-old anticoagulant called heparin.” Then again, the list price had somehow risen to more than $1,500.
We take anticoagulants so our blood won’t clot; we take Mephyton so it can. Anyone who bleeds is fair game.