Music video concept, blockbuster fiction, or ALL of the above!?
Sometimes the universe seems to scream at us, “Pay attention! This is a debacle!” Apparently, this is necessary because, for some in America, a 5,000% price hike on a lifesaving drug isn’t attention-grabbing enough.
Months after Martin Shkreli, the pharma exec who masterminded the grossly inflated price, had been designated by several online media outlets as “the most hated man in America,” his face made the front pages again – this time along with the faces of FBI agents taking him into custody on securities fraud charges.
Because Shkreli also fancies himself an urban, “gangsta”-type, hip-hop aficionado, when the music group Wu-Tang Clan offered its latest album in a limited edition of one – with a cool $2 million price tag – Shkreli didn’t hesitate.
So, the question for regular folks who are concerned with the costs of healthcare and prescription drugs might be: “Why are people like Martin Shkreli attracted to the pharmaceutical industry in the first place?” Yes, there’s money to be made. Lots of it. But there are plenty of other places to make lots of money, especially if you already have a lot.
A more precise answer is the thrill of speculation. Shkreli and his ilk are glorified gambling addicts. They may also possess varying degrees of psychopathy, because playing games in the biotech field, where lives are at stake, requires at least some lack of conscience.
And it isn’t exclusively the high-rolling Wall Street players playing with lives. The language of portfolio managers for everyday investors speaks volumes. Reacting to reports that comments by presidential candidate Donald Trump about drug prices adversely affected pharma stocks, one such manager told Reuters, “If [his] message resonates on the Republican side, then biopharma will have both sides shooting at it, which is not optimal for investors.”
For investors. You can find nearly limitless, similar examples of patients being left out of the equation in news reports on pharmaceutical companies every day. There’s a tunnel vision that pretends stock values and patient care exist on separate planets. They don’t, and it’s up to you and me to demand a more balanced system.
Meanwhile, even the Wu-Tang Clan has lined up against Martin Shkreli. Social media is abuzz with the growing feud between the 32-year-old former CEO and a band member called Ghostface Killah. Shkreli made a low-budget video in which he taunts the musician while surrounded by three anonymous figures dressed in pseudo-ninja disguises. This is the same man who was allowed to set prices on life-or-death treatments.
We can boast about the American free-market system all we want, as long as we’re okay with “highest bidders” such as Shkreli making decisions that affect millions of our sick and suffering fellow citizens. Decisions he presumably made in between “dissing” hip-hop artists whom he paid $2 million, holding court for hours on Twitter, and – oh, yes – fighting charges of using a hedge fund to create a Ponzi scheme.
Shkreli could be a fictional character straight from the pages of my book: Robert Marx’s DEADLY PRESCRIPTION, but the FBI and the front page of the New York Times keep reminding us that he’s real.