Truthdiggers of the Week: All Those Who Piled on Martin Shkreli
When Martin Shkreli, a 32-year-old pharmaceutical CEO, raised the price of a 62-year-old drug acquired by his company from $13.50 to $750 per tablet, the medical industry and the public exploded in outrage.
The former hedge fund manager’s decision threatened to increase the annual cost of treatment for rare, life-threatening parasitic infections sometimes contracted by AIDS and cancer patients to, in some instances, hundreds of thousands of dollars, a change that would drive most patients into deep debt and even bankruptcy.
A New York Times article quoted a joint letter to Shkreli’s company, Turing Pharmaceuticals, by the Infectious Diseases Society of America and the HIV Medicine Association that called the price increase for Daraprim “unjustifiable for the medically vulnerable patient population” and “unsustainable for the health care system.”
In a number of interviews that followed his announcement, Shkreli declared that his decision would actually increase access to the drug, that he would give the drug away to patients who could not afford it, and that his company needed to raise the price in order to turn a profit and realize what he called his “altruistic” goal of developing better drugs to treat the condition that Daraprim addresses. Experts responded that the drug works well and new versions are not needed and pointed out that companies typically finance the development of new drugs through outside investment rather than instituting price increases that damage patients financially or, in some cases, prevent them from obtaining medicines they need to survive.
Even drug and biotech industry trade groups criticized Shkreli. PhRMA, the drug industry’s public face and one of the most powerful lobbies in the country, tweeted that his decision “does not represent the values of @PhRMA member companies.” And on Wednesday, BIO (the Biotechnology Industry Organization) ejected Shkreli and Turing from the association. “Turing Pharmaceuticals was a member of BIO for a brief period of time and is currently no longer a member,” a spokesman for the organization told reporters. “The company and its leadership do not reflect the commitment to innovation and values that are at the core of BIO’s reputation and mission.”
On Twitter, many users were less formal in expressing their criticism, saying such things as Shkreli “deserves a special place in hell” and is a “douch bag motherfucker.” One user wrote that “the world must know what an awful piece of shit martin shkreli is. Google him.” Others called him a “psychopath” and “Big Pharma’s Biggest Asshole.”
Shkreli published derogatory tweets in response, calling one reporter who questioned the increase a “moron” and engaging in schoolyard-like spats with others who criticized him. When one Twitter user asked how he could sleep at night, Shkreli responded: “you know, ambien.”
In an interview with ABC on Tuesday night, Shkreli announced that he would lower the price of Daraprim but said the new price would not be announced for a few weeks. He confirmed that the decision was a result of the reaction to the price hike, saying “there were mistakes made with respect to helping people understand why we took this action. I think that it makes sense to lower the price in response to the anger that was felt by people.“
In The Washington Post, reporter Caitlin Dewey reported on what the article headline called “The successful Internet shaming of ‘pharma bro’ Martin Shkreli.” She wrote that although online shaming is typically socially destructive, in this instance “the online mob did all the worst, most destructive things that we tell people to never do—and it worked, spectacularly, for the greater good.”
As Dewey noted, thousands of people are now likely to retain access to a potentially lifesaving medication. But this is only a small victory, one that carries no official authority. The U.S. government is blocked by law from negotiating drug prices with pharmaceutical companies. Even so, the scandal does draw attention to the issue of excessive costs for medications. Presidential candidates including Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump weighed in on the Turing price hike. Within hours after the increase came to light, Sanders vigorously demanded that the company justify its move, and shortly afterward he reminded voters of his earlier promise to introduce legislation that would halt skyrocketing drug prices. Clinton was quick to roll out her own plan to deal with drug prices, and Trump called Shkreli a “spoiled brat.”
For piling on a villain and turning a spotlight on the greed-filled system he exemplifies, all those who shamed Martin Shkreli are our Truthdiggers of the Week.