This article was published by TalkPoverty.org.
The frat boy of pharmaceuticals, Martin Shkreli, was sentenced to seven years in prison this month for securities fraud and conspiracy. After four years of earning millions by controlling the supply of certain medications, he was convicted of defrauding hedge fund investors in a Ponzi scheme.
In many ways Shkreli is a master of American capitalism, but he forgot its cardinal rule: Hurting people with less money than you is part of doing business, but ripping off other rich people is a line you do not cross.
Like most people, I first heard the name Martin Shkreli when he made news for hiking up the price of a drug called Daraprim. The medication is used to treat life-threatening infections that can strike people with compromised immune systems, particularly people with AIDS. After Daraprim was acquired by Shkreli’s company in 2015, the price of a single tablet skyrocketed by 5,000% overnight from $13.50 to $750. It was at least the second time he had used the tactic: A year earlier he encouraged a different company to inflate the price of a kidney stone medicine called Thiola, increasing the daily cost from $30 to $450.
To be fair, he isn’t the only one guilty of this offense. Hundreds of other drug company executives have committed similar deeds to rake in as much profit as possible. But few others have been so blatant about it, reveling with such glee in both the frustration of patients and the rewards of his gluttony. Shkreli seemed to delight in flaunting his wealth. He loved showing off all the pricey toys and trinkets he bought with his drug company profits, including an infamous (and now subject to forfeiture) one-of-a-kind Wu-Tang Clan album. It was the kind of entitled, spoiled-rich-kid behavior that earned him the nickname, “Pharma Bro.”
From all appearances, life was good for Pharma Bro in those glory days of making a lifesaving drug unaffordable to those who desperately needed it. He was universally loathed, but nothing he did was actually illegal.
I don’t currently have any family members who take Daraprim, as far as I know. However, my family and I rely on other expensive drugs to stay alive or maintain even just the bare minimum quality of life. My sister is on a host of drugs to treat advanced multiple sclerosis (MS), rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and severe asthma. Or should I say, she is supposed to be on these drugs. She doesn’t have insurance, so she hasn’t taken any of them in more than a year. Just one of her MS drugs, Rebif, costs more than $5,000 a month. That’s $60,000 per year.
I would go to fill my child’s prescriptions, and then see the staggering price lists on the computer screen. The clerk or pharmacist would call me over to the side for a private consult. Their expression was always one of either shock or pity, or a combination of both. In whispered tones, they would say something like, “Um, this is pretty expensive, so I just wanted to make sure you were aware of that.” If you were lucky enough to have insurance that would cover any portion of this — usually a relatively small amount — the insurance company would also often get involved at this point. Then you would face the additional experience of insurance companies playing doctor, attempting to make critical decisions about your lifesaving treatments.
Sometimes I’d try to bargain with the pharmacist by asking if they could dole out a one-week supply at a time, so I could pay in smaller increments. There were times when I had little or no money at all, and would break down in tears at the pharmacy counter. In the end, though, you usually would be left to face the inevitable: Come up with the money, or go without it.
Sometimes the prices are justified — the rarer the drug, the more costly the treatment — but a lot of the time it’s not. I had always assumed that somewhere behind the scenes, someone was getting rich off the proceeds of these meds, whose sky-high prices often sent me into an emotional panic. But I never realized how arbitrary it could be until I read the coverage of Shkreli and his Daraprim price hike a few years ago.
Shkreli was famous for his cocky smirk and glib attitude towards anyone who questions his methods, but he reportedly cried when his sentence was announced. He presumably never shed tears for the people who needed his companies’ medications so they wouldn’t die, or the many people like me who have sobbed at a pharmacy counter.
We are left to wonder why justice only appeared when the victims were rich.