WASHINGTON – Shannon and Joshua Weston braced for the worst when they learned their newborn daughter had been diagnosed with congenital toxoplasmosis, a parasitic disease that could cause serious motor, cognitive and other issues in babies.
But they were not prepared for the cost of the drug, Daraprim: $360,000 per year.
“I looked into a second mortgage, cashing in my [retirement account] and even contemplated contacting the local news agency to get our story out,” Shannon Weston said Thursday before the Senate’s Special Committee on Aging. “I was hopeless and depressed. … I truly felt like I had failed her in the worst possible way.”
The hearing was held to examine the effects of the price increase of the drug. Witnesses included patients and representatives of the company that sells the drug.
Daraprim is used to cure parasitic diseases and treat people with AIDS. It has been on the market since the Food and Drug Administration approved the drug in 1953. Before August 2015, the cost per pill was $13.50. Expensive, but nothing compared to its post-August price: $750 per pill, a 5,000 percent increase.
That increase was set by the company that acquired the drug, Turing Pharmaceuticals, and the company’s now-infamous founder Martin Shkreli. As the Westons fretted in November about how to raise money for the life-saving drug, Shkreli spent $2 million to buy an album by the Wu-Tang Clan.
Shannon Weston had to pause as she recounted her struggle to obtain funding for Daraprim. For the Westons, the story had a happy ending: The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was able to acquire a year’s supply of the drug, which costs the family $218 per month, instead of $28,000.
Shkreli, who resigned from Turing, was not present, but a couple of his former business partners were. The sympathy the senator had for the first group of witnesses – the Westons, UNC Dr. Adaora Adimora and former Turning Vice President Howard Dorfman, who was fired before the price increase – turned to outrage when the second group of witnesses spoke.
“There are lots of ways to describe what happened here,” Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said. “The best way I can describe it is the incarnation of evil.”
“I’m so angry I can barely see straight,” said Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., who later called Turing Pharmaceuticals a “scam.”
The witnesses were Ronald Tilles, Turing’s interim CEO; Turing co-founder Michael Smith, and partner Dan Wichman of Broadfin Capital.
Of all the senators, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., had the harshest words. The former prosecutor was making her first appearance at a committee in three weeks. She spent the time in St. Louis receiving breast cancer treatment.
She ripped into the three men with a barrage of rapid-fire questions.
“Do you think it’s important that a CEO of a pharmaceutical company have a background in pharmaceuticals?” she asked Wichman.
“Well, people at the company would,” he said, after a long pause.
“No, the CEO.” McCaskill said, cutting him off. “Do you think the CEO of a pharmaceutical company should have a background in pharmaceuticals?”
“In my opinion, it would be helpful, but not mandatory,” Wichman stammered.
“Did Martin Shkreli have that kind of background in pharmaceuticals?” she asked.
“As CEO of the pharmaceutical company, no,” he replied.
As it turned out, the man currently running the company doesn’t have that background either.
“You’re the CEO of the company, but you don’t know much about pharmaceuticals, do you?” McCaskill asked Tilles.
“That is correct,” he said.
Asked how sales changed from August to December, Tilles said he couldn’t remember. So McCaskill told him: They had fallen from 25,500 units in August to 600 units by December.
Smith, the company co-founder, was grilled after a transcript of Skype chat session was displayed on screens for the whole room to see. Smith shifted in his seat as Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, read from the expletive-filled transcript.
Smith and two colleagues joked about how a couple of patients paid for the drug in cash. Smith also expressed concern that the 340B program, a federal law that requires manufactures to provide medicine at a discount for the country’s poorest citizens, was cutting into Turing’s profits.
“When I talk to people who work on Wall Street, or … in corporate America, they’re beside themselves in trying to understand why America is so mad at them,” McCaskill said at the end of her questioning. “This is why they’re mad! This nonsense is why people are furious! And they’re mad at us because we’re letting you do it.”
Reach reporter Luke Torrance at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-408-1494. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and Instagram.
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