Senators lambaste Turing for 'unethical' price hikes at latest drug price hearing

Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME)

Turing Pharmaceuticals was front and center again at a recent Senate hearing over drug price increases, and for the most part, it was the same old song and dance. The drugmaker came under fire by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, who lambasted the company for jacking up the price of an antiparasitic drug and compromising patients' access to the med.

Turing set off a firestorm of criticism last year after buying toxoplasmosis drug Daraprim and hiking the price by 5000% to $750 a pill from $13.50 a pill. Lawmakers at Thursday's hearing, which was held by the Senate Special Committee on Aging, said that the company's move negatively impacted patients, as many could not afford the drug at its higher price, MedPage Today reports.

Senators pointed to a couple from North Carolina with an infant with toxoplasmosis. The couple testified that their insurance company refused to pay for Daraprim for their newborn baby after Turing increased the drug's price. The University of North Carolina Chapel Hill (UNC) ended up agreeing to compound the drug for $48 a month. Otherwise, the couple would have been forced to pay $28,000 a month for Daraprim, committee chair Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) said.

Turing struck back at the accusations of Senators, saying that "almost no patient pays" the full price for Daraprim, interim CEO Ronald Tilles said during a back-and-forth exchange with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), a vocal critic of pharma's price hikes. Tilles stepped into the top spot at Turing after former CEO Martin Shkreli stepped down because of federal fraud charges for his work with another company.

But Warren wasn't buying Turing's excuses. "Saying 'almost' is not very good if it's your child who's in trouble," Warren said, as quoted by The Hill. "You can't just shove this off. You have people who can't afford it."

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)

Warren also took aim at other pharma companies who are raising prices. Drugmakers such as Pfizer ($PFE), Biogen ($BIIB) and Novartis ($NVS) have all gouged prices, but unlike Turing, those companies invest in R&D, Warren said. "It was unethical when Turing did it, and it was just as unethical when the rest of the pharmaceutical industry jacks up drug prices, and they routinely did it," Warren said at the hearing.

Still, Turing stayed on the defensive. The company maintains that it jacked up the price for Daraprim because it invests heavily in research. Turing plans to funnel 60% of revenue into R&D, Tilles told senators at the hearing. "It's hard to look back; what's done is done. We'll invest in R&D and improve patient access as much as we can," Tilles said, as quoted by Regulatory Focus.

But Howard Dorfman, Turing's former SVP and general counsel, told senators that at the hearing he warned Shkreli the move "would have a severely negative impact on Turing's business and reputation." According to the New York Times, Dorfman testified that he told the 32-year-old CEO the price hike was "not justified" because the company hadn't spent any money on R&D. 

Shkreli's response was that he was "the most knowledgeable person with regard to this business model; that I was seriously misinformed," Dorfman said. And Shkreli "basically said that no one cares about prices." Dorfman said. 

Shkreli did not make an appearance at Thursday's hearing. Lawmakers earlier this year subpoenaed the former Turing CEO to attend a congressional drug price hearing after Shkreli said that he would not attend. Shkreli showed up but invoked his fifth amendment right not to incriminate himself. He, however, drew criticism from the committee for smirking throughout the hearing and bad-mouthing lawmakers on Twitter after he was excused.

- here's the MedPage Today story
- read The Hill article
- get more from Regulatory Focus
- here's the NYT story (sub. req.)

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