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Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Pope & the Hedge Fund Manager

In an ironic twist, the pope is visiting America at the same time the Antichrist has arisen. Okay, perhaps I exaggerate slightly. Martin Shkreli, the founder and chief executive of Turing Pharmaceuticals, is not the Antichrist. But he does a damn good impression.

Shkreli is a former hedge fund manager, which is about as far from altruism as one can get. Picture a mirror image of Pope Francis: gaze deeply enough into Maleficent’s evil looking glass and you’ll see the 32-year-old Shkreli with a permanent smirk etched on his youthful face. Pope Francis has come to America with his message excoriating  the excesses of capitalism and condemning its concomitant greed. He criticizes the corporate greed that has diverted capitalism from creating fairness, equity, and dignified livelihoods for the poor.

Enter Shkreli, who epitomizes all that is evil about unrestrained capitalism. Shkreli’s company, Turing Pharmaceuticals, bought the rights to Daraprim, a 55-year-old drug used to treat toxoplasmosis – a life-threatening parasitic infection that can occur in infants, AIDS patients, and cancer patients. Daraprim has long been out of patent protection and sold for as little as $1 a tablet, although the price gradually increased to $13.50 as different pharmaceutical companies acquired the drug. Upon purchasing the rights, Shkreli announced he was raising the price from $13.50 to $750 per tablet – a roughly 5500 percent price increase for a drug that may literally mean the difference between life and death for those who need but can no longer afford it.

People will die because of Shkreli’s greed. “This isn’t the greedy drug company trying to gouge patients, it is us trying to stay in business,” Shkreli told the press, his plastered smirk never leaving his face. And grass is blue, and the sky is green, and black is white. Of course it is about greed. Pure unadulterated greed. Naked lust for the almighty dollar with absolutely no thought for the poor people whose lives depend on that medicine or for the Almighty Himself. If not the Antichrist, then perhaps we might refer to Shkreli as the anti-Pope Francis.

Maybe there is a divine purpose in the timing of these two contrasting events. Shkreli’s 5500 percent price gouging is merely the most egregious and unconscionable example of the pharmaceutical industry’s penchant for a greed driven business strategy of buying old neglected drugs and turning them into high-priced “specialty drugs”. I’ve written about this before, most recently this past April. Maybe now people will wake up and pay attention, and insist Congress pass legislation to regulate the cost of medication. There is no reason why any single pill or tablet should be priced above a dollar. Even at one dollar, a daily dose of one pill would cost $30 per month. Factoring in that the sick and elderly usually take multiple medications, or multiple doses of the same medication, and live on fixed incomes or no income (because they are sick, disabled, or retired) even that modest cost might exceed their ability to purchase the medicine they need.

Pharmaceutical companies should, and certainly do, make a profit. But there’s a difference between profiting and profiteering. There are legitimate research and development costs inherent in the development of new drugs, although that is not the case with the 55-year-old Daraprim or the similar high-priced “specialty drugs”. The preamble to our Constitution states: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” The Founders established this country with the notion that it was the government’s job not merely to provide for the common defense, on which it currently spends trillions of dollars, but to promote the general welfare as well. If some of those trillions were spent to subsidize the cost of pharmaceutical research and development instead of new weapons systems, then the drug companies would be able to provide inexpensive medicine to Americans while still making a profit. There might even be an additional benefit to increased government spending on medical research and development in the form of newly discovered cures to diseases like cancer. Some might see this as a miracle, but to quote Pope Francis, “I would even say that the future of humanity is in great measure in your own hands.”

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