Editorials

Editorial: The price of dying is going up

Assemblywoman Susan Talamantes Eggman, right, announces the approval of aid-in-dying legislation on Sept. 11. The pharmaceutical company that owns the most commonly used drug has doubled its price.
Assemblywoman Susan Talamantes Eggman, right, announces the approval of aid-in-dying legislation on Sept. 11. The pharmaceutical company that owns the most commonly used drug has doubled its price. Los Angeles Times

Martin Shkreli, the poster child for vulture capitalists preying on the sick, is getting a run for his money.

In some ways, it’s even more outrageous. While Shkreli bought life-saving drugs and jacked up their prices, Valeant Pharmaceuticals is profiting from the drug typically used by terminally ill patients in physician-assisted suicide.

As KQED reported this week, Quebec-based Valeant purchased Seconal in February – a month after California legislators proposed an aid-in-dying bill – and immediately doubled the cost for a lethal dose to $3,000.

When the law takes effect June 9, Medi-Cal and most private insurers plan to pay the tab. But that will unnecessarily take money from other patients and treatments. Patients without coverage will have to pay the exorbitant price, or find a pharmacist willing and able to compound a drug cocktail that goes for about $400.

The usual justification for raising a drug’s price – high research and development costs – doesn’t apply in this case. Seconal, also known by its generic name secobarbital, was formulated some 80 years ago as a sleeping pill. It became the go-to drug for doctors in Oregon, where the nation’s first physician-assisted suicide law took effect in 1997. A lethal dose (about 100 capsules) went for less than $200 in 2009, then increased to $1,500 before Valeant bought it.

A possible explanation is the lack of competition from generics, one of the factors cited in a statement from Valeant to KQED. Advocacy groups aren’t buying it.

“It is morally reprehensible for a pharmaceutical company to artificially jack up the price of aid-in-dying medication that is no longer patented to take advantage of a relatively few terminally ill adults who need the medication to relieve unbearable suffering at the end of life,” Kat West, national policy director for Compassion & Choices, said in a statement to The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board.

Shkreli defended his price spikes and smirked his way through a congressional hearing. But he got his comeuppance in December, when he was arrested on suspicion of securities fraud and booted from two companies.

Karma may already be biting Valeant. It’s under congressional investigation for its pricing, its stock price has plummeted by some 85 percent over the past year and on Monday, its CEO resigned in an accounting scandal.

The pharma industry should take notice. Companies may make a quick buck from raising drug prices, but eventually it can cost them, big time.

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