Turing Pharmaceuticals CEO Martin Shkreli made waves this year by boosting the price of generic drug daraprim from $13.50 to $750 per tablet. Now he’s angling for an FDA voucherworth hundreds of millions of dollars by abusing an incentive program intended to encourage development of new drugs for neglected diseases. He’ll be ratcheting up the price of another drug to boot. And finally his interview with HipHopDx reveals him to be a very nasty and unsavory character. (Jump straight to the last question if you don’t believe me.)
Yet ironically his well publicized price-jacking of a few specific products seems reasonably likely to lead to a slowdown in price increases for the pharma industry as a whole, if not outright price controls. You see, what Shkreli has done differs only in degree from standard industry practices.
The industry spends a lot of money and energy to explain that its pricing is directly related to the high cost of drug development. We know that’s not true, but even if it were true it would not explain why prices for medications rise so quickly, even for products that have been on the market a long time.
The Shkreli affair, along with shenanigans from Valeant, have awakened serious journalists, who have started to look into drug pricing more broadly. This Wall Street Journal article (How Pfizer set the cost of its new drug at $9,850 a month) is a good example. Pfizer doesn’t set its price based on R&D costs, but it doesn’t charge the maximum it can get away with either. Pfizer is in this game for the long term and likes the status quo. It doesn’t want to generate a backlash. But Shkreli is generating a backlash, not just against him but against the whole industry. Politicians are seizing on him as an example, and rightly so.
Free markets unfettered by government interference are great, but as I have written (Why drug price regulation should not be ruled out) we have to remember that the government plays a very big role in enabling high and rising product prices: it grants monopolies and market exclusivity that keep out competitors. And, through Medicare, Medicaid and other programs the government is the biggest payer for many products. Shkreli’s actions present legislators and the president with an opportunity to re-examine drug pricing policies and consider changes that are in the country’s interest. The longer he keeps up his act, the higher the chance for significant reform.