Pharma karma catches up: Shkreli sentenced to 7 years

The man who embodied the phrase “pharma bro” and once urged his fans to pull a hair from Hillary Clinton’s head at a book signing has had a visit from pharma karma. The judge in Martin Shkreli’s fraud case, Kiyo Matsumoto, has sentenced the poster man for pharmaceutical company greed to seven years. Estimates are that Shkreli, 34, might get out in a couple of years if his behavior is good.

At his sentencing hearing, Shkreli apparently, and rather uncharacteristically, expressed contrition and shed enough tears that the judge called for the court officer to bring the defendant a box of tissues. Shkreli, in making his plea for leniency, tearfully told the judge that “the one person to blame for me being here today is me.” The judge apparently was unmoved, although the sentence is less than the 15 years the prosecution requested.

Shkreli drew the time after a jury found him guilty of one count of conspiracy to commit securities fraud and 2 counts of securities fraud. The same jury found him not guilty on an additional five counts, raising some hope from his legal team that his sentence would be light. The crimes, related to stock manipulation of shares in Retrophin, one of Shkreli’s companies, and ripping off hedge fund backers, could have carried a sentence of up to 20 years.

In February 2018, Matsumoto found that losses resulting from Shkreli’s crimes tallied up to $10.4 million.

Although he’s probably best known for overseeing a 5,000 percent price hike of a toxoplasmosis drug for HIV-positive patients, Shkreli’s post-pharmaceutical shenanigans caught a much attention as his venality while helming Turing Pharmaceuticals. He dropped $2 million on the sole copy of the Wu-Tang Clan album ‘Once Upon a Time in Shaolin,” which the judge has included in his assets. He harassed a journalist on Twitter, getting himself suspended, and seemed to want to fashion himself into the Snark King of Social Media.

His posturing ended up being his downfall.

While awaiting sentencing, Shkreli boasted that he would end up serving hardly any time and what time he did serve would be in the relatively posh environs of a “Club Fed” prison for white collar criminals. But after he exhorted Facebook followers to pluck a hair from Clinton’s head and offered $5000 per sample, the judge who sentenced him revoked Shkreli’s bail and ordered him to be placed in Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center, a far different experience for the pharma bro.

Although Shkreli is at the center of his own story, some believe that the industry overall is not blame-free. STAT journalist Adam Feuerstein has pointed out that the pharmaceutical industry can’t entirely disown Pharma Bro and his behavior, noting that Shkreli “was doing what lots of other biotech and pharma CEOs did, and still do to various degrees. Legally.”


USA Today editorial board: Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, JPMorgan can’t ‘fix our nonsensical health care system’

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While health insurers and benefit managers saw stocks tumble on news Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase & Co. will enter the healthcare arena, the editorial board at USA Today isn’t convinced the move will be as disruptive as some think.

In an opinion piece published Feb. 20, USA Today editors wrote, “To BBD [Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett and Jamie Dimon] we say: Go for it. If you can come up with ways to provide your employees with better health care for less money, more power to you. To the rest of the country we would say this: Don’t get too excited. Not even a company as crafty as Amazon, or a bot as all-knowing as Alexa, can fix our nonsensical health care system.”

USA Today said the reason an Amazon-Berkshire-JPMorgan company won’t create overarching change is because U.S. healthcare is built upon an “upside-down” architecture. They wrote providers and drug companies “have monopoly or near-monopoly powers” to set prices, while employers and payers are much more fragmented.

“The three companies — particularly Amazon — are known for their ability to disrupt industries. But in health care, they aren’t up against an old-school industry fallen behind the times; they’re facing powerful monopolies or near-monopolies brimming with technology of their own,” according to the report.

To view the full opinion piece, click here.




After Another Merger Monday In Health Care, CVS Is Still The Company To Watch In 2018

The health care sector rallied yesterday on another “Merger Monday” with the announcement of Sanofi’s (SNY) purchase of Bioverativ (BIVV) for $11.6 billion, and Celgene’s (CELG) $9 billion purchase of 90 percent of Juno Therapeutics (JUNO). But there’s still one transformative merger that will define and reshape the U.S. health care market in 2018: the CVS/AETNA $69 billion deal announced last December.

CVS is best known for its 9,700 retail pharmacies and 1,100 walk-in clinics, but its most significant profit driver is its pharmacy benefits manager (PBM) enterprise—a middleman between pharmaceutical manufacturers and dispensers like drugstores. The company generated $177.5 billion in net revenue in 2016.

With its purchase of Aetna, another bold company and the nation’s third largest health plan, CVS upended uncomfortable business incentives built into its business model. In theory at least, the CVS PBM has new incentive to bring down drug prices and push for the most efficacious—not necessarily the most expensive—treatment choices, to achieve more competitive insurance premiums. They can also favor common sense preventive and primary care through convenience clinics.

This is what makes the CVS/Aetna deal different. It crosses sectors and realigns previously competing business incentives to better target consumer demand. Most of the merger proliferation we have seen over the past few years involves companies in similar categories within the health care industry. Providers merge with other providers, health plans with other health plans, and pharmaceutical companies with others in pharma.

Realigning incentives is the central problem in the health care marketplace, which is built on thorny knots of unintended consequences and senseless rules that resist untangling. The most famous of those knots are fee-for-service payment rules, still largely dominant, whereby payors reimburse for any and all services, regardless of quality. Among its hazards, fee-for-service incentivizes infections because it results in more care and thus pay better. Nobody thinks that is a good idea, but the business model is extremely difficult to unravel. CVS seems up to the challenge.

CVS Chief Executive, Larry J. Merlo, is the man for the job. His signature style is a laser-focus on the company’s core mission of “helping people on their path to better health,” which he is determined to accomplish even when short-term profit incentives nudge in a different direction. That was why Merlo led CVS to discontinue tobacco sales in 2014, and why CVS recently banned digitally altered photos on cosmetic products sold in their stores. Maybe it sounds logical that a health enterprise shouldn’t sell cigarettes or promote eating disorders and depression, but it takes unusual courage to turn away lucrative business.

Many greeted the news of the CVS/Aetna merger as a play to head off new ventures coming from Amazon or other new players. But what makes me optimistic about this particular deal is the new company’s combination of health industry and retail savvy. Many companies have one but not the other. Enterprising outsiders often enter the health care industry with good backing and an idea that would definitely help patients, only to end up six feet under the health care lobbyists, special interests, regulatory twists, and perverse incentives that have dogged the health care system over decades. There are large graveyards full of great companies that naively believed that normal business models work in health care. CVS is not naïve.


The health care industry’s bubble

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Health care companies at this year’s J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference celebrated the Republican tax overhaul and trumpeted optimistic views of their future financial power. But as more Americans become unable to afford drug prices, hospital bills, deductibles and copays — and as they voice their anger — there is sentiment brewing in the industry that a day of reckoning will come.

Key quote: “We are in the middle of a bubble in all health care asset classes,” said Bijan Salehizadeh, a health care investor at NaviMed Capital. “Everyone knows it, but no one knows how it will end.”

What we’re hearing: The one part of health care that multiple people at the conference said desperately needed to change was pharmaceuticals.

  • Many companies continue to hike list prices on generics and brand-name drugs, game the system by extending old drug patents, and are coming out with relatively fewer breakthroughs compared with a much higher number of “me-too” drugs that provide limited benefits over existing drugs.
  • Firms that are developing innovative treatments are commanding prices that surpass many estimates of what is reasonable.
  • Drug companies looking to get bought out are expecting high takeout prices based on the assumption current pricing tactics will remain the status quo.

Yes, but: As many presentations from the J.P. Morgan event confirmed, problems aren’t confined to the pharmaceutical industry.

  • Hospital profits and cash reserves are hovering near historic highs.
  • Premium rates reflect the high cost of health care services and drugs, but observers have raised questions about whether insurers are getting the best deals possible, and whether narrow networks have been helpful.
  • Independent Medicare policymakers continue to push for regulatory changes to nursing homes, home health companies and other non-hospital providers that are earning sizable profit margins from the government.

“Providers are part of it,” Rod Hochman, CEO of Providence St. Joseph Health, a large not-for-profit hospital system based on the West Coast, acknowledged in an interview. “But also pharma has to be part of the solution. Insurers have to be part of the solution.”

Spencer Perlman, a health care analyst at Veda Partners who wasn’t at the J.P. Morgan meeting, has long said companies that obstruct competition or play with regulatory loopholes have been playing with fire.

“So much of current health care valuations are based on revenue and earnings projections that are generated by reimbursement arbitrage, legal maneuvering and/or rent-seeking behaviors,” Perlman said.

Get smart: Health care eats up almost one-fifth of the U.S. economy. The companies that get a slice of that pie don’t have incentives to give it up. Even if Congress or federal agencies intervene with new policies, look for many players to point fingers at industries they believe are bigger abusers — like the current fight between drug companies and pharmacy benefit managers.