2023 Shkreli Awards: Dishonorable Mentions
We recently revealed the winners of the 7th Annual Shkreli Awards. That’s our top 10 list of the most egregious examples of profiteering and dysfunction in healthcare. If you want more, we’ve got it: here are the nominees that were just shy of making the final list.
Drug company delays release of less-toxic HIV drug to extend patent protection and make billions
Reporters: Rebecca Robbins and Sheryl Gay Stolberg, New York Times
According to internal documents made public as a result of litigation, drug company Gilead engaged in a “patent extension strategy” starting in 2004 that kept a potentially safer version of its HIV therapy off the market for almost a decade. By timing the release of the new drug as the patent on the old one was expiring, the company stood to gain billions in profit, reported the New York Times. Nearly half a million HIV patients may have been exposed to the more toxic drug for years. David Swisher, one of the plaintiffs suing Gilead, says that he has developed kidney disease and osteoporosis, with one doctor telling him he had “the bones of a 90 year old.” He’s only 62. In court filings, Gilead claims the allegations are meritless and denies the new drug’s development was paused to increase profits. Its patents now extend until 2031.
Company adds useless plastic part to increase price of implantable device
Reporter: Lizzy Lawrence, STAT News
With an external battery, Stimwave’s nerve stimulating device to alleviate chronic pain represented a less invasive and risky option for patients than other products in its category. However, the lack of an internal power source also meant insurance companies would want to pay less for it. So in a series of decisions driven by CEO Laura Perryman, a $16,000 higher price was eventually justified by the addition of a small plastic piece. It purportedly functioned as a receiver for electrical current, but in actuality it did nothing, according to a U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit reported on by StatNews. The updated device was implanted in nearly 8,000 patients before being recalled. Perryman was arrested in March of 2023, pleading not guilty to charges of conspiracy and health care fraud for which she faces up to 20 years in prison. Stimwave, now called Curonix, has agreed to pay $10 million to avoid criminal prosecution for Medicare fraud.
See also: SEC charges former CEO of pain relief device company with $41 million fraud – STAT News
Company keeps CPAP sales cranking for years despite complaints of carcinogenic foam
Reporters: Debbie Cenziper, ProPublica; Michael D. Sallah, Michael Korsh, and Evan Robinson-Johnson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette; and Monica Sager, Northwestern University
In 2010, medical device maker Phillips redesigned their CPAP machine to reduce noise and improve customers’ sleep. But their fix had an unfortunate side effect. The reengineered machines were packed with a foam that sent toxic and carcinogenic material (including formaldehyde) straight into the lungs of patients, according to a ProPublica/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette investigation. Phillips received more than 3,700 complaints over 11 years about the foam and as many as 370 deaths may be related. Despite awareness of the problem, Phillips continued marketing their CPAP machines for years until a recall was issued in 2021. The company recently agreed to pay a minimum of $479 million as a result of a class action lawsuit but admits no wrongdoing or liability as part of the proposed deal.
See also: CPAP Maker Reaches $479 Million Settlement on Breathing Device Defects – The New York Times
Medical school morgue manager accused of running black market for skulls, skin, and “braiiiiins”
Reporter: Ally Jarmanning, WBUR
Medical schools depend on the incredible generosity of people who donate their bodies to science. And donors gain the satisfaction of knowing they will leave something behind that could help save the lives of others. It seems like a win-win…but things don’t always go as planned. At Harvard Medical School, morgue manager Cedric Lodge and his wife Denise have been accused in a federal indictment of stealing and selling off body parts taken from donated cadavers. A story from WBUR in Boston tells us that body parts like heads, skin, and bones were sold to interested parties and that one exchange was initiated by a transfer of $200 and a note indicating the funds were for “braiiiiiins.”