One of the less enjoyable features about American government is the tendency for reactive policy rather than proactive — or even pre-emptive. In the last several months, terrorism, immigration, police brutality, healthcare costs and again (sadly) mass shootings have dominated the public narrative and the 24-hour news cycle, and political leaders are once again on their heels finding policy solutions.
Seldom is enough time spent examining what should have been passed after the last tragic event that would make the next one less problematic. Take for example the obsession with the “Pharma Bro”. Despite literally hours of coverage and millions of pixels discussing what a horrible example he was of millennial greed gone wild, the discussion about price gouging in the pharmaceutical industry — his original crime — was still only brushed over.
America met 32-year-old Martin Shkreli this past September when it was revealed that his company, Turing Pharmaceuticals, bought the marketing rights for an off-patent drug called Daraprim. When Shkreli found out the pill played a crucial role in combating HIV and other infections he quickly jacked up the price from $13.50 a pill to $750 a pill.
The fact that he was essentially Columbusing the pill (it had been around for 60 years), flaunting his wealth and behaving like a background frat guy in a Girls Gone Wild video only made Shkreli easier to hate. The more the press covered his largesse the cockier he got, even backing down from an initial pledge to do something about his price gouging. But now that the PharmBro is back in the press being arrested for a completely different crime of greed, it might be a good time to see what politicians have actually done about the issue he became famous for to begin with.
A task force was created, that has accomplished nothing. Shkreli was asked to testify before Congress and he didn’t show up. Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and yes, even uber capitalist Donald Trump jumped on Shkreli’s actions. The bad press has actually hurt some drug stocks, but still nothing has happened policy wise.
Common sense policies could curtail the price gougers and the poverty profiteers without throwing the whole system into chaos.
The usual response to medical price gouging is ‘price controls’ but that doesn’t really solve the problem either in the short or the long term. While no one wants to be seen as getting cozy with Big Pharma the fact remains that pharmaceutical advancements actually help to bring down some drug costs, especially those “specialty drugs” to treat rare diseases.
Pharmaceutical companies put a lot of investment on the line for a new drug, and the process to move a drug from concept to FDA approval to market averages about 2.6 billion dollars and 10-12 years. If the drug doesn't make it to market, which is 88 percent of the time, the company, its investors and even its employees often take the hit.
After a few years the FDA allows generic drugs to be made off of initial patents, which brings the cost for drug care down significantly for poor people and especially minorities. African American and Latino people suffer more from chronic diseases than any other ethnic group in the country. That boils down to missed days at work, medical costs and expensive trips to specialists. If you're poor and black, brown or Latino you can't rub Robitussin on everything, and having access to cheap generic drugs may save lives and livelihoods.
It's hard to take the side of big business in our current economy. And especially difficult to not to lash out with short term policies at a 32-year-old pharma CEO who brags about screwing over sick people and buys vintage Wu-Tang albums for $2 million bucks.
Many Americans will see the arrest of Shkreli as the end of the story, a rich jerk goes to jail right in time for Christmas. However, in all of the karmic laughter of the blogosphere, the issues of fair prices and minority access still need to be addressed.
Shkreli is an outlier, he was engaging in all sorts of unethical and shady business practices prior to him being exposed by the Daraprim drug story. Common sense policies could curtail the price gougers and the poverty profiteers without throwing the whole system into chaos.
Of course that would require forward thinking. That would require policy solutions from candidates instead of sound bites. All of that comes from an honest conversation about drug pricing and drug companies in this country. But if all the gleeful coverage of Pharma Bro’s arrest is any indicator, we won’t be hearing any real solutions anytime soon.