Turing, a small pharmaceutical company, was caught in a swirl of negative publicity this fall when the New York Times announced that Turing had raised by almost 5,000 percent the price of an old drug used to treat an infection that can be life-threatening in those with HIV or AIDS or with otherwise compromised immune systems. The company’s founder and CEO promised at least a “modest” reduction in price, but did not quite follow through, announcing a discounting scheme instead.
Now, two companies in the pharmaceutical industry have declared that they will work together to provide an alternative drug for just $1 dollar a pill.
Turing spent $55 million dollars this summer for the right to produce and distribute Daraprim, a drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1952 to treat toxoplasmosis, as Rewire reported. This parasitic infection can come from eating undercooked meat or unwashed fruits and vegetables, or from cleaning out the litter box of an infected cat.
The parasite is common and most people never get symptoms, but it can be very dangerous to pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems, such as the elderly, infants, certain cancer patients, and people with HIV or AIDS.
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When Turing acquired Daraprim, it cost either $13.50 or $18 per pill (Turing’s CEO disputed reports that used the lower number). Regardless, the price hike—to $750 per pill—was alarming to patients and providers. A standard, two-week course of the medication went from costing $1,130 to $63,000. Some patients with compromised immune systems need to take Daraprim daily.
For them, the increase meant the drug would cost $634,500 per year.
Turing’s CEO, Martin Shkreli, defended the price increase, saying that his company needed to raise the price to continue making the drug and that it would funnel some profits into researching newer, better drugs to fight toxoplasmosis. But experts questioned why that was necessary as Daraprim still worked just fine.
In a late September interview, Shkreli said his company would lower the price of the drug but did not say by how much. He later said that the public could expect an announcement of modest decrease in price by the end of December.
What was ultimately announced, however, was somewhat different. Instead of lowering the list price, the company created a program to provide the pills to hospital at a 50 percent discount and promised to make smaller bottles so hospitals could afford to keep it in stock. Turing also promised to provide free sample starter packs to “ensure physicians treating patients in the community have free and immediate access to start therapy in emergency situations.”
The company vowed to participate in programs that make drugs more affordable to low-income people who benefit from Medicaid, the Section 340B program, and Patient Services, Inc. Turing said it would provide the drug free of charge to qualified patients with demonstrated income at or below 500 percent of the federal poverty level.
In its press release, the company tried to explain why it made these changes rather than a simple price reduction: “Drug pricing is one of the most complex parts of the healthcare industry. A drug’s list price is not the primary factor in determining patient affordability and access. A reduction in Daraprim’s list price would not translate into a benefit for patients.”
All of this, however, may become irrelevant because two companies have jumped in to provide an alternative. Drug maker Imprimis Pharmaceuticals has said it will create a compound of two drugs it already makes—pyrimethamine and leucovorin—that together can treat toxoplasmosis. Express Scripts, the largest pharmacy benefits management company in the country, has said that it will offer this compound to its patients for $1 per pill.
The companies have also announced an educational campaign to ensure that providers are aware of this low-cost alternative.
“We are pleased to partner with Express Scripts to take positive action to counterbalance companies like Turing and others in order to address the growing drug pricing crisis in America,” Mark Baum, the CEO of Imprimis, said in a statement.
In the meantime, Shkreli has been called to appear in front of Senate subcommittee on December 9 for a hearing on drug pricing. He told Business Insider, however, that he was unlikely to participate and pointed out that the committee doesn’t have subpoena power: “When my lawyers tell me I absolutely have to go, I’ll go,” he said.