Imagine that you have a serious medical disorder. If left untreated, the disease could kill you in a slow, agonizing manner. But there are drugs that can mitigate the disease and help you lead a normal life. You just have to be able to scrape together enough money to afford the exorbitant cost.
This thought exercise became a reality last week when former hedge fund manager and CEO of the start-up Turing Pharmaceuticals, Martin Shkreli, announced that his company would be raising the price of the drug Daraprim (pyrimethamine) from $13.50 to $750 per pill. According to the New York Times, Shkreli justified this obscene price gouging because the use of the drug was rare. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) includes Daraprim on its 2015 List of Essential Medicines, which includes the most important medicines for any basic healthcare system.
Though Shkreli might dismiss use of the drug as “rare,” it is used to treat toxoplasmosis, “the most prevalent infection in humans.” Toxoplasmosis is usually asymptomatic in healthy adults, though scientists are investigating if even supposedly undetected infections can lead to larger health problems. Health officials do know, however, that in very young children and individuals with compromised immune systems, such as cancer and HIV-positive patients, toxoplasmosis can be very serious, even life-threatening. With the costs of cancer and HIV treatments already exorbitantly high, such an enormous price increase to another life-saving drug for patients who are already strapped for cash is brutal.
When the news about Daraprim’s dramatic price hike reached the public, people took to Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, and blogs to shame Shkreli and Turing Pharmaceuticals for putting profits over the lives and well-being of people. The outcry worked—Shkreli announced that the company would decrease the drug’s price. This news is certainly good for people with compromised immune systems who may need the drug, but it does not address the larger problems in the for-profit US healthcare system that have not been addressed by the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare), the largest being that the system not only allows but encourages companies to make money at the expense of human lives. Pharmaceutical price increases are disturbingly common, particularly among drugs whose patents expire but are then reacquired by companies looking to make money off of such drugs. Sudden and dramatic hikes on drug prices can cause health insurance companies to increase their co-pays for certain drugs or drop them from coverage entirely, making the costs outrageous even for insured patients. Hospitals are also less likely to stock more expensive drugs, which can lead to delayed treatment. The Institute of Medicine estimates that annually least five percent of American adults experience a delayed diagnosis, making the speedy provision of treatment even more necessary.
Looking at all of these flaws in the American healthcare system, one could easily agree with Walter Cronkite that “America’s healthcare system is neither healthy, caring, nor a system.” It is inefficient yet costly, and in its pursuit of profit at the expense of human life, it runs contrary to the humanistic values of empathy and shared human dignity. A more efficient system that could control costs while placing human well-being, not profits, at the forefront would be a national, single-payer system in which the state managed the financing of healthcare and ensured coverage for all Americans.
Under such a system, patients wouldn’t need to worry about unexpected and dramatic price gouging of their medicines. Hospitals would be able to stock the drugs that they need, and doctors would be able to focus on patient care instead of wrangling with insurance companies or substituting cheaper but less effective treatments. Most importantly, the goal of a single-payer healthcare system would be to maximize human wellness instead of profits. Healthcare is a humanist issue, and it’s time for humanists to start calling for a single-payer system.