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Documentary Seeks Truth Behind ‘Super-Villain’ of Drug Prices

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“Pharma Bro,” a new documentary about disgraced former drug company head Martin Shkreli, seeks to shed light on the person once-dubbed “the most hated man in America.” Regardless of his motivations, Shkreli’s name will forever be linked to the crisis of overpriced drugs in the U.S.

The documentary, directed by Brent Hodge and released digitally by 1091 Pictures earlier this month, opens in a comic book store. Throughout the film, Travis Langley, PhD, professor of psychology at Henderson State University in Arkansas, talks about the characteristics that make a successful super-villain.

That’s what Shkreli had become, even before he was put on trial and sentenced to 7 years in prison for securities fraud.

Shkreli – the son of janitors from Eastern Europe – grew up in Brooklyn, and had dreams of making it big, according to the documentary. And, he did, at a very young age, working on Wall Street. But Shkreli soon branched out, moving into the pharmaceutical sector, where he focused on companies that bought orphan drugs — those used to treat rare diseases that afflict relatively small numbers of people.

Shkreli’s main mark on society came in 2015, when his company Turing Pharmaceuticals hiked the price of a life-saving medication, Daraprim (pyrimethamine), from $13.50 to $750 per pill. The drug treats toxoplasmosis — an infection that can cause severe pain and death in people with weakened immune systems, including HIV and cancer patients, as well as pregnant women.

As people became more and more outraged at the move, Shkreli’s unapologetic statements to the media fueled the fire, even as he promised that no patient would be forced to go without the drug.

As depicted in the documentary, Shkreli continued his combative rants on livestreams he regularly conducted from his New York City apartment. He welcomed people to call in and ask him questions, and then trolled most of them. He also ate bagels, played with his cat, and simply smirked into the camera.

Director Hodge called in, but ultimately decided he’d have to get closer to Shkreli if he wanted to make his film. Hodge interviewed friends, former girlfriends, and even the rapper Ghostface Killah from the Wu-Tang Clan, from whom Shkreli famously bought a single album for $2 million. (Shkreli ultimately used the album as a coaster, soliciting anger from fans.)

Amid the interviews, Hodge went one step further. He moved into Shkreli’s apartment building, becoming a friendly neighbor, who is portrayed in the documentary as bringing Shkreli a six-pack of beer as a kind gesture during his trial for securities fraud.

Some interviewees underscored a sensitive side of Shkreli most of the world hasn’t been privy to. Billy the Fridge, a rapper and Shkreli’s friend, told Hodge that if you put all of the video clips of Shkreli together in which he’s being mean to people, you could find even more in which he’s being a good person. “I look at him, and I see him as a person whose great power maybe was used irresponsibly,” he said. “And he still has a great power.”

Lauren Hayden, Shkreli’s former girlfriend, laughed off the notion of him being a danger to society. In the documentary, she detailed one especially nerdy date that warmed her heart. “We got into a cab onetime, I look over at him, and I was like, ‘I wonder what the probability of stepping in the same cab twice is?’ and he goes, ‘That’s a great question, let’s sit here and figure it out.'”

But many others who spoke throughout the film weren’t as lenient.

The documentary shows that the jury selection for his trial became a painstaking task, resulting in nearly 200 potential jurors being turned away. Many despised him or his actions related to overpriced drugs, which was not even what he was on trial for.

His association with the practice of hiking drug prices has perhaps highlighted the fact that setting high drug prices remains legal for pharmaceutical companies, according to the documentary.

“As much as we all love to hate him, others are doing it. So, he’s not alone,” said Judith Aberg, MD, division chief of infectious diseases at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.

In the film, Aberg said that she believes patients who have been affected by the Daraprim price hike haven’t come forward because, for some, that would mean disclosing their HIV status.

“This isn’t some drug you can live without,” she added.

One Daraprim patient, Patrick Rice, was interviewed for the documentary.

Rice told Hodge that after the price hike happened, he couldn’t get access to the medication, which had jumped in price from $30 to $30,000 per month. Even having insurance didn’t ensure that Rice had access to the drug.

One day, Rice stumbled upon an “Ask Me Anything” Reddit thread being hosted by Shkreli, he said in the documentary. Rice questioned whether Shkreli was being dishonest about any patient having access to Daraprim if they needed it, noting, “That hasn’t been my experience as a patient.”

Shkreli ultimately told Rice to reach out to him directly, and Rice was connected with a patient representative and provided the drug, according to the documentary. He now no longer needs the medication, but still has concerns.

“I didn’t feel like the system was working because I got my med, I feel like I got really, really lucky,” Rice told Hodge.

The documentary concludes with Shkreli being acquitted of the most serious securities fraud charges against him and being sentenced to 7 years in prison. Hodge packs up and moves out of the building he shared with the infamous executive.

The film’s parting words appear on the screen: “Daraprim is still $750 per pill. There remains no national pharmaceutical price gouging or drug price transparency law in the United States.”

  • Jennifer Henderson joined MedPage Today as an enterprise and investigative writer in Jan. 2021. She has covered the healthcare industry in NYC, life sciences and the business of law, among other areas.

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