The saga of Flint, Michigan, where residents suddenly found themselves drinking lead-poisoned tap water, demonstrated how people become victims of corrupt government. If that weren’t enough, those who suffer the worst from lead poisoning find themselves the victim of shameless corporate greed.
As the Flint water crisis unfolded and we began finding out that lead-tainted water is a problem in cities across the country, one notorious pharmaceutical company saw a chance to cash in.
Valeant Pharmaceuticals raised the price of a drug used to treat lead poisoning by 2,700 percent after acquiring the drug in 2013. By 2015 – as the issue of lead poisoning became prominent news – the price for a package of vials rose from $950 to $26,927.
This intravenous treatment, called Calcium EDTA, has been available for decades at a stable price, and is the most effective for severe and life-threatening cases of lead poisoning. The dramatic price increase has drawn the ire of poison control specialists and hospitals since it began, but their concerns don’t make the MSM news headlines.
“This is a drug that has long been a standard of care, and until recently it was widely accessible at an affordable price,” said Dr. Michael Kosnett, an associate clinical professor in the division of clinical pharmacology and toxicology at the University of Colorado’s School of Medicine and a consultant to the California Poison Control System, who has contacted Congress. “There’s no justification for the astronomical price increases by Valeant, which limit availability of the drug to children with life-threatening lead poisoning.”
The problem is, the drug does not have a long shelf life and is not needed in large quantities, since severe lead poisoning is relatively uncommon. This is precisely the excuse Valeant gives for its egregious price hikes, with a company spokesman telling STAT, “The list price increases over the past several years have enabled us to provide to the market consistent availability of a product with high carrying costs and very limited purchase volume of 200 to 300 units per year.”
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The greed of Valeant Pharmaceuticals – which does little more than buy up other pharma companies and raise drug prices – was celebrated by Wall St. for two years until an accounting scandal and congressional hearings began tarnishing its image.
In October 2015, we reported that Valeant raised prices on a number of critical brand-name drugs by an average of 66 percent -- five times as much as its closest industry peers. These included Cuprimine, a decades-old drug that treats an inherited disorder called Wilson disease, and a diabetes drug called Glumetza.
Valeant relies on insurance companies and government programs to shield most patients from the skyrocketing costs, but this leads to higher premiums and co-payments, as well as an extra burden on taxpayers.
Doctors have complained to federal officials about the astronomical prices hikes for the lead-poisoning drug and others acquired by Valeant, but the problem is they are complaining to the very State that enables such exploitation through patent monopolies and barring drug imports from other countries.
Even if the patent monopoly has ended on a drug and the free market is allowed, it would take years for generics to be developed in response to sudden price hikes.
As expected, nothing has come of doctors' efforts to get government to intervene in the Big Pharma fleecing of suffering medical patients. Meanwhile, hospitals struggle with the outlandish price hikes on life-saving drugs, and public health suffers as a consequence.
“Lead poisoning is often an inner city problem and many hospitals don’t have a lot of resources in those areas,” said Dr. Lewis Nelson, who chairs the department of emergency medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. “Hospital pharmacy budgets are not unlimited, and this is the kind of drug nobody wants to keep around because there isn’t a lot of use. So this can create a dilemma.”