Want to die with dignity? There is a coupon for that, too.
This may sound like a morbid joke, but it’s making the rounds on the Internet thanks to Valeant Pharmaceuticals.
True to its widely vilified business model, the drug maker more than doubled the price of Seconal, a drug used for physician-assisted suicide, from $1,500 to $3,000, early last year. This occurred a few months before California lawmakers proposed legalizing the practice (it was signed into law last October). The company was able to readily slap a higher price on the drug because there are no generics available, although a compound version can be obtained.
“It’s just pharmaceutical company greed,” Dr. David Grube, a family doctor in Oregon, where physician-assisted death has been legal for 20 years, told KQED, which first reported the price hike. “It’s not a complicated thing to make, there’s no research being done on it, there’s no development. That to me is unconscionable.”
Valeant had purchased the sedative, which was developed more than 80 years ago but has changed several times, from Marathon Pharmaceuticals in February 2015, along with several other drugs. Among them were two heart medicines — Isuprel and Nitropress — that are widely used in hospital emergency rooms. Valeant immediately raised the prices on those treatments by 525 percent and 212 percent.
An outcry from hospitals and subsequent media coverage quickly sparked controversy over the move. Not only were the price hikes seen as excessive, but Valeant chief executive Michael Pearson had long boasted to Wall Street that raising prices on “undervalued” medicines was a sure-fire growth strategy, rather than investing large sums of money to research and develop new drugs.
The publicity prompted an ongoing series of congressional hearings into drug pricing, which have also probed Turing Pharmaceuticals and Martin Shkreli, its former chief executive, for pursuing the same strategy of buying older medicines and then quickly raising prices to sky-high levels.
Valeant has since imploded, partly due to accounting problems, and the drug maker is seeking a replacement for Pearson amid various government investigations. The company, meanwhile, vowed not to pursue excessive price hikes, although this alleged shift has only added to investor anxiety because it’s unclear how the drug maker can resume its once-stellar financial growth.
In a statement, Valeant said “the price increase for the drug occurred shortly after Valeant acquired it, and months before California’s assisted suicide law passed. The suggestion that Valeant raised the price to take advantage of a law that had not yet passed, for a use for which the drug is not even indicated, defies common sense.”
Nonetheless, the price hike on Seconal represents another vexing barrier to accessing health care, according to Nancy Berlinger, deputy director at The Hastings Center, an independent, nonprofit bioethics research center.
“Whatever one’s position on aid in dying, this is another reminder of how pricing affects access to different forms of health care in the US,” she said. “Suddenly, someone has to worry about obtaining the drug at the end of their own life. And it’s a troubling question. Change in availability has ethical consequences.”
Nonetheless, there is a way to get a discount. This coupon should provide about 30 percent off the cash price, which means Seconal would cost about $2,100, leaving roughly $900 that can be used for other expenses.
(This post was updated to include a comment from Valeant and that the price hike took place shortly before the bill was introduced).