Drug Price Gouging Enters Spotlight as Candidates Take on Big Pharma

Turing's price hike on life-saving medication has prompted renewed political action. (Photo: David K/flickr/cc)

Drug Price Gouging Enters Spotlight as Candidates Take on Big Pharma

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton among those calling for reforms to pharmaceutical marketplace

Amid a growing scandal over two pharmaceutical companies' price hikes on two vital medications, voices from the political sphere are promising renewed action to tackle price gouging in the medical marketplace.

On Sunday, Turing Pharmaceuticals increased overnight the price of Daraprim, a malaria medication, from $12.50 to $750 a pill. Around the same time, a separate drug company, Rodelis Therapeutics, sent the cost of tuberculosis drug Cycloserine from $15 to $360 a pill.

After ensuing outrage, Rodelis rescinded the increase and handed Cycloserine back to the nonprofit organization from which it had purchased ownership of the drug brand. But Turing refused to back down.

Turing CEO Martin Shkreli defended his company's actions from widespread criticism, telling Bloomberg TV about the Daraprim decision, "This drug saves your life for $50,000. At this price, it's a no-brainer."

Shkreli's actions and cavalier defense did little to soothe public furor. But among the continued outcry, some politicians stepped up with their own solutions to the issue of unregulated medication costs.

Hillary Clinton on Monday tweeted, "Price gouging like this in the specialty drug market is outrageous. Tomorrow I'll lay out a plan to take it on."

While the official plan will not be unveiled until the Democratic presidential candidate's speech in Iowa later Tuesday, early reports indicate that it would force pharmaceutical companies to reinvest profits into disease and treatment research and allow Medicare to lower and cap out-of-pocket expenses for consumers.

Bernie Sanders, Clinton's current chief rival for the nomination, has also sponsored legislation that would allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices with pharmaceutical companies. Many of the provisions in his bill are echoed in Clinton's new plan.

Sanders also sent Turing a letter on Monday demanding information on the company's price hike.

"The enormous, overnight price increase for Daraprim is just the latest in a long list of skyrocketing price increases for certain critical medications," Sanders said in a joint statement with Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

"Without fast access to this drug, used to treat a very serious parasitic infection, patients may experience organ failure, blindness or death," Sanders and Cummings said.

Indeed, Daraprim is widely considered one of the best medications for toxoplasmosis or people whose immune systems are weakened by HIV/AIDS or cancer. The Infectious Diseases Society of America slammed Turing's action, saying it burdens patients and creates unsustainable costs for the country's healthcare system.

Big Pharma has come under fire in recent weeks over its unregulated control over drug prices. A recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that more than 70 percent of Americans feel medication prices are unreasonably high and that drug companies put their own profits above people's medical needs.

And Shkreli does not disagree. In fact, he used it as his defense, telling CBS News, "The drug was unprofitable at the former price, so any company selling it would be losing money. And at this price it's a reasonable profit. Not excessive at all."

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