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Price-Gouging Pharma CEO Martin Shkreli Taunts Democrats Before Debate

The “Pharma Bro” will probably be watching tonight.

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Martin Shkreli, the pharma CEO who made headlines last month for spiking the price of a drug often used by AIDS patients, seems to be trying to insert himself into the first Democratic debate.

The CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, Shkreli is best known for raising the price of a 70-year-old parasitic disease drug, pyrimethamine, from $13.50 to $750 a pill.

One day after a New York Times story noted the price hike, Sanders and Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland responded to public outcry by sending Shkreli a letter requesting financial documentation behind the "unjustifiable" increase in price.

That same day, Hillary also pounced on the news in her campaign, tweeting that drug price gouging is "outrageous."

In his snarky tweet Tuesday to Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, Shkreli claimed that corporations enjoying record profits largely bear the insurance costs of his drug increase. He also complained that the pharmaceutical industry had ignored newer treatments for the parasitic disease for decades.

Dear @BernieSanders & @HillaryClinton, I have an important question for you. Get back to me whenever, Martin Shkreli.

The majority of our drug is sold at 0.01/pill. @HillaryClinton and @BernieSanders hold uninformed views which fall apart under any scrutiny.

In other tweets on Tuesday he claimed that all of the profits from the drug price increase would go to medical research.

"In a sense, he's right" about the wider problems of the pharmaceutical industry, clinical cardiologist Vikas Saini, president of the Lown Institute in Brookline Massachusetts, told BuzzFeed News. However, Saini expressed doubt about Turing's research capabilities. The firm is advertising 18 jobs, seven of them research related. "If he is really going to put all his profits into research, then more power to him."

Immediately after the outcry last month, Shkreli defended the price increase as a matter of simple economics — an undervalued drug rising to its true market price. Later, though, he promised to roll back the drug price and invest in research. So far, neither of those things have happened.

Pharmaceutical industry critics such Peter Bach, director of Memorial Sloan Kettering's Center for Health Policy and Outcomes, have pointed to Shkreli's price hike as a dramatic example of how health care costs are rigged against patients.

"He made it clear that the system is so broken even a child could manipulate it," Bach said at a Stanford University conference last month.

Former New England Journal of Medicine editor Marcia Angell noted in a recent Washington Post opinion piece that pyrimethamine costs only 66 cents a pill in India, and that many U.S. drugs bear prices far higher than their overseas cost. "Unlike every other advanced country, the United States permits drug companies to charge patients whatever they choose," she wrote.

Drug companies have steadily claimed that high drug prices allow them to recoup the costs of investment in a new drug, or about $2.6 billion over 10 years, according to the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. The FDA approved a record 44 new drugs last year.

But Saini said that the "Pharma-Bro," as Shkreli has been nicknamed, has a point here as well.

"Innovation has just become a slogan for a lot of big pharmaceutical firms," Saini said. Only about one-third of newly approved drugs last year were the first of their class, and less than half came from the historic big pharmaceutical firms, according to the FDA.

Although Shkreli has become the poster boy for bad pharmaceutical behaviour, "nothing he did is illegal," Saini said. "It's unfair to make a bad guy out of him and stop there. The entire healthcare system is filled with decisions made that are far from the public interest."

Dan Vergano is a science reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.

Contact Dan Vergano at dan.vergano@buzzfeed.com.

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