Extortion Can Be a Drug Crime Too

 Photo: Universal News & Sport (Europe)
Photo: Universal News & Sport (Europe)

Maybe you haven’t been following the news about this smug asshole since the start of the week.  If not, just Google “Martin Shkreli”, and you’ll learn all you need to know and more.

Here’s the short version of why we’re suddenly paying attention to him:

Shkreli is a former hedge funder who leveraged his ill-gotten gains in that industry to become founder and CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, which about a month ago acquired ownership of Daraprim  That’s a drug developed in the early 1940s that’s the treatment of choice for toxoplasmosis, a deadly parasite that attacks patients with weakened immune systems, like AIDS sufferers or cancer patients undergoing chemo.  It causes blindness, seizures and loss of cognitive faculties before killing about 80% of its victims.

The good news is that Daraprim works, has manageable side effects, and has been pretty affordable at $13.50 a dose with a typical run of treatment of about 100 doses.  A thousand bucks or so has been the difference between life and death for those infected.  That is, until Shkreli acquired monopoly control of the drug, and overnight jacked the price up to $750/dose,  a 5556% increase.

Responding to the resulting outpouring of rage and vitriol, Shkreli announced today that he’ll reduce the price of Daraprim, but hasn’t said by how much.  Apparently he needs a few weeks to study the matter.

I’m not optimistic.  In his earlier media encounters responding to the scandal, Shkreli came across like an evil boy genius from a Steven Seagal flick.  His defense boiled down to an argument that $1000 wasn’t enough to charge people to save their lives, lots of life-saving drugs are expensive, and he’s just being a good businessman trying to maximize profits in a free market.  He seemed genuinely amazed to learn that his exceptional business sense and “altruism” (yeah, his word) didn’t make him an object of widespread fawning admiration, but rather the epitome of a one-man death panel, in effect telling victims of toxoplasmosis without an extra $75,000 lying around that they should just fuck off and die.

From where I’m sitting, Shkreli seems to be doing for Big Pharma what the Donald has been doing for the Republican base, ripping off the mask to reveal the repulsive face of reality — ignorance, hatred and bigotry of the latter, insatiable greed and utter contempt for human pain and loss on the part of the legal drug cartels.  He’s not the only powerful sociopath in the industry, he’s just careless and narcissistic enough to expose himself.

In a way, he’s performing a valuable public service by putting Big Pharma’s rapacity on full public display, and prompting some talk on related issues like how the industry rigs the law to force American patients to pay about ten times more than prevailing prices in the rest of the world for the same drugs from the same manufacturers.  We might even get some discussion of how they’re using “free trade” agreements like Obama’s TPP to extend their control of drug availability and pricing into more of the world’s markets.

Perhaps prompted by  the media storm around Shkreli, Hllary Clinton has called out  what she referred to as “price gouging” in the drug market and proposed new regulations that would require health insurers to limit policyholders’ maximum out-of-pocket for prescriptions to $250 a year.

There’s a strong case to be made for government regulation of drug prices.  It works in the rest of the world’s developed economies to help hold down health care costs while leaving healthy profits in the industry’s pockets, and there’s something inherently distasteful in leaving corporations a free hand to extract maximum profits by exploiting the suffering of the sick, the elderly, and the helpless.

But that’s not what Hillary’s plan would do.  There’s no price control mechanism there,  it just shifts the burden from patient to insurer, leading to higher premiums and leaving Pharma to keep charging whatever the rigged market will bear.

And then there’s the political problem of bucking America’s masochistic love affair with market capitalism.  Price controls!  Heaven forfend!  Sounds like a socialist plot to interfere with the free functioning of the market’s invisible hand!

But here’s the thing — the free market in prescription drugs is already distorted by unwarranted government interference.  US law, pushed through by Bush II as part of Medicare Part D and enshrined in Obamacare, prevents the natural market influence of volume purchases to bring down prices, by forbidding Medicare administrators to negotiate for the best price possible when making bulk purchases of drugs.  And US law also artificially props up high prices by making it illegal for American patients to shop for the best prices on the world drug market.  These are both gross intrusions on the operation of the free market and guarantee the highest prices in the world for Americans who need life-saving drugs, or just relief from common ailments.

There’s no conservative ideological argument that justifies these government intrusions into the free market to benefit some of the richest corporations in the world.  And the resulting benefits to middle class and working American families make repealing them attractive to progressives.  In fact, Bernie Sanders has proposed eliminating them as part of his platform for more affordable health care.

There’s only one reason for any legislator to oppose these two reforms, and that would be because he’s getting part of the take from Big Pharma picking the pockets of the sick and the old.

Or because he’d be happier if the 99 percenters would just fuck off and die.


One thought on “Extortion Can Be a Drug Crime Too”

  1. How do we break the barriers of ” Soul Isolation” ????
    It is just that that causes a person to be consumed by the delusion of happiness that could result from gouging fellow humans in a time of pain and need.

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