On October 1, several dozen public health and economic justice activists stormed the lobby of Turing Pharmaceuticals to demand one thing: The end to the practice of hedge funds exponentially increasing the price of previously affordable medications for no apparent reason other than profit.
"The pre-existing greed of drug companies is now greed on steroids thanks to hedge funds," says Michael Kink, executive director of the Strong Economy for All Coalition, who spoke at the protest. His group sponsors Hedge Clippers, a new coalition of economic justice, public health and labor organizations dedicated to exposing and combating the impact of hedge funds on American lives.
"Hedge Clippers is taking a full-spectrum look at the corrosive impact of hedge funds and the 'winner-take-all' perspective, because it's not limited to our pay checks or taxes or the government, but is coming down to our bodies and medicines and whether or not people can stay healthy," says Kink.
The CEO of Turing, Martin Shkreli, a 32-year old former hedge-fund manager, earned global headlines and ire in September when the New York Times reported that after Shkreli bought the rights to the 62-year-old drug Daraprim, he promptly increased its price by 5,000%. Daraprim treats toxoplasmosis, a parasitic infection dangerous to people with immune systems weakened by diseases such as HIV. Dubbed the "pharma-bro" for his relative youth and arrogant nonchalance when questioned about risking untold numbers of lives for profit, Shkreli proved unusually adept at inspiring mass disdain -- and at unintentionally shining a brief spotlight on the systemic problem of drug pricing in the United States.
The advocates convened in his company's lobby on Thursday to ensure that public focus on drug pricing does not vanish with the headlines about Daraprim. "We wanted to call attention to the fact that this isn't just about one scummy hedge fund guy, but a whole bunch of them," says Kink. "Twenty of the 25 drugs with the fastest-rising prices over the past two years are linked to hedge funds."
After the protestors were ordered to vacate the lobby or risk arrest, they reassembled on the steps of Turing, where they poured kitty litter into a litter box lined with Shkreli's picture. "Toxoplasmosis is found in cats, so we wanted to point out that he is actually the parasite because he's trying to get rich by price gauging a very vulnerable and sick population," says Jason Walker, HIV/AIDS Housing Advocacy Network Coordinator at VOCAL-NY, which helped to organize the protest.
The protest doubled as the launch of Hedge Clippers' Hedge Paper No. 22, outlining exactly how hedge funds' and private equity firms' increasing investment in pharmaceuticals is rapidly inflating the cost of drugs -- and costing average Americans both their health and billions of dollars.
Since February, Hedge Clippers has released a Hedge Paper on a different topic every week. One report describes how hedge funds played a pivotal role in the controversial pricing of Gilead's hepatitis C drug Sovaldi at $84,000 for a 12-week course, or about $1,000 per pill. The United States claims the world's highest drug prices; as result, medical bills are the leading cause of bankruptcy in the country.
"This is just the first step," says Walker. "We are going to build a coalition around this to try and get our federal legislature in line." Hedge Clippers has been supported by other HIV organizations in addition to VOCAL-NY, including the Treatment Action Group (TAG) and HealthGAP, as well as several other community groups and labor unions.
"I think for people with HIV, the entire course of the disease has required fighting to make sure people have access to the most effective medications," says Kink. "And I think now, with the hyper-financialization of the pharmaceutical industry, it's clear that they have a lot in common with people who've had their pensions destroyed, their houses foreclosed, and their democracy taken away by billionaires."
Lucile Scott is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York, who has written extensively about the global and domestic AIDS epidemics for POZ magazine and organizations including amfAR and Housing Works.