Members of Congress laid into a notorious pharmaceutical executive on Thursday for his high-profile drug price hikes, but some of those same legislators own stock in companies that are fighting efforts to rein in drug prices.
Former Turing Pharmaceuticals CEO Martin Shkreli invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination at a Thursday hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. However, that did not stop committee Democrats from bashing Shkreli, who has become a punching bag for politicians who claim drug prices are too high.
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Derisively known as "pharma bro," Shkreli, 32, made headlines last year after his hedge fund bought Turing and he installed himself as CEO. He immediately hiked the price of the antiparasitic drug Daraprim by more than 5,000 percent, drawing criticism from politicians, media figures, and even pop culture icons.
At Thursday’s hearing, a smirking Shkreli elicited heated condemnations from members on both sides of the aisle as he invoked his Fifth Amendment rights and refused to answer the committee’s questions.
"When you have an individual behave the way Mr. Shkreli did when he was CEO and in his public appearance today and in his tweets, he has put a pretty ugly face in front of the public in terms of the industry, its profit motivation, its concern for patients, and any sense of responsibility," Rep. Gerry Connolly (D., Va.) told Turing’s chief financial officer, who also testified at the hearing.
Connolly said Shkreli’s public statements were tainting public perceptions of other pharmaceutical companies. "It has unfairly damaged the industry," he said.
Connolly’s stake in the industry’s future is in part financial. He owns stock in two major pharmaceutical companies. In his latest personal financial disclosure report, Connolly reported owning $50,000 and $100,000 in Bristol Myers Squib and between $15,000 and $50,000 in Merck.
Bristol Myers Squib is one of several major pharmaceutical firms paying into a lobbying fund to fight policy initiatives designed to reduce drug prices.
Efforts to cap drug prices or stem their increases were spurred in large part by controversy over Daraprim. However, observers note that Turing is a small company in an industry dominated by a few large players.
Merck is one of those companies, and it hiked the prices of 38 of its drugs last year.
Connolly’s office did not respond to questions about his financial stake in the two companies and whether it informed his questions at Thursday’s hearing.
He is not the only committee member who owns pharmaceutical stock. Rep. Matt Cartwright (D., Penn.), who slammed "exponential drug price increases" at the hearing, last year reported owning between $1,000 and $15,000 in BMS stock. He also reported another $1,000 to $15,000 in pharmaceutical stock owned by a dependent child.
Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D., Ill.), a member of the committee who was not present at the hearing, last year reported owning between $1,000 and $15,000 in pharmaceutical firm Johnson & Johnson.
Thursday’s hearing came as the issue of drug prices plays a larger role in the national political conversation, driven in large measure by Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s calls to impose price controls on the industry.
Despite that rhetoric, employees of pharmaceutical firms have donated more money to Clinton than any other presidential campaign on either side of the partisan divide.
Lobbyists for major pharmaceutical companies have served as some of Clinton’s largest campaign fundraisers, even as Clinton publicly calls the industry her "enemy."