2020 Shkreli Awards
JANUARY 5, 2021 — The Lown Institute has issued its top ten list of the worst examples of profiteering and dysfunction in health care. This year we’re highlighting bad actors from the Covid-19 pandemic. (watch the video)
Nominees for the Shkreli Awards, named for Martin Shkreli, the price-hiking “pharma bro” that everyone loves to hate, are compiled by Lown Institute staff with input from readers of Lown Weekly. Winners are determined by an esteemed panel of patient activists, clinicians, health policy experts, and journalists. (press release | previous winners)
Private-equity backed companies spend millions to protect surprise billing, while cutting physician pay and pocketing relief dollars
During the first Covid-19 wave, physician staffing companies TeamHealth and Envision cut pay and benefits for clinicians putting their lives on the line to care for Covid patients, while spending millions on political ads against surprise billing legislation. The parent company of Envision also received $60 million in interest-free loans from the CARES Act.
Pandemic profiteers peddle fake and potentially harmful Covid-19 “cures”
Televangelist Jim Bakker touted “silver solution” and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell promoted botanical product oleandrin as Covid-19 “cures.” Colloidal silver has no health benefits, and can cause seizures and organ damage. Oleandrin is a botanical extract best known for its toxicity; ingesting it can be deadly. Historically, oleandrin failed to demonstrate therapeutic benefit for cancer and heart disease, and has not been proven to have any beneficial impact for Covid-19 patients.
Doctors too have jumped on the fake Covid-19 cures bandwagon. Dr. Jennings Ryan Staley, who ran the Skinny Beach Med Spa in California, was indicted by the federal government for selling “COVID-19 treatment packs” for $4000, consisting of hydroxychloroquine, antibiotics, Xanax, and Viagra.
Connecticut doctor uses town’s Covid-19 testing sites to bilk residents
Dr. Steven Murphy, an internist who ran Covid-19 testing sites for several Connecticut towns, used public testing sites to conduct unnecessary tests. Billing documents show that Dr. Murphy did not test patients just for coronavirus. He routinely billed insurers for a large panel test for at least 20 respiratory pathogens, including rhinovirus and enterovirus. He also charged insurers $480 to give residents results over the phone. These unnecessary costs led to bills for up to $2,000 per person. In response to criticism, Dr. Murphy told the The New York Times that “just testing for coronavirus is one of the most dangerous things you could do,” and that because of insurer denials he was “uncompensated at a cost of millions.”
(Source: Sarah Kliff, The New York Times)
Hospitals punish mask-wearing clinicians for “scaring the public”
In the first Covid-19 wave, clinicians at several hospitals across the US reported being suspended or fired because they insisted on wearing N-95 masks and other protective equipment in the hospital. Hospitals justified these actions by saying that wearing masks was unnecessary and doing so would scare patients. Hospitals have also fired or threatened to fire clinicians for speaking out on Covid-19 safety issues such as the lack of protective equipment and long test turnaround times.
Hospital CEO pens op-ed justifying high vaccine prices, neglects to disclose $487,000 conflict of interest
In February, CEO of Brigham and Women’s Hospital Dr. Elizabeth Nabel wrote an op-ed defending high drug prices as a necessity for innovation. In the piece she did not disclose her role as a member of the board of biotech Moderna, which was developing a Covid-19 vaccine at the time. As a Moderna board member, Nabel received $487,500 in stock options and other payments in 2019.
Nabel sold $8.5 million worth of Moderna stock in 2020, after the company’s stock nearly quadrupled this year on news of early success with its COVID-19 vaccine. In response to criticism, Nabel resigned from the Moderna board.
Big pharma rejects global effort to cooperate on Covid-19, competes for profit instead
Pharmaceutical giants AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson condemned the concept of Covid-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP). C-TAP is a voluntary scheme led by the World Health Organization to share information, including trial data and patent rights, to more easily develop and distribute coronavirus treatments, vaccines and diagnostics. “I think [C-TAP] is nonsense and at this point of time it’s also dangerous,” said Dr. Albert Bourla, chief executive of Pfizer.
(Sources: Sarah Newey, The Telegraph)
Nursing homes fail to protect most vulnerable Americans from Covid-19
For years, nursing homes across the US have been inadequately staffed, leading to infections, medical errors, and neglect. The lack of proper staffing, oversight, and support for nursing homes has tragically made these institutions hot spots for Covid-19 outbreaks. For example, leaders of Soldiers Home veterans’ nursing home in Holyoke, Mass., decided to combine the Covid-19 unit with the other dementia unit because they were low on staff, allowing the virus to spread rapidly and kill 76 people. As of late November 2020, more than 100,000 nursing home residents and staff had died from Covid-19 in the US.
Hospitals with extra beds refuse to take uninsured patients from overrun neighboring hospitals
Four major hospital systems in California refused to take Covid-19 patients or delayed transfers from hospitals that were out of beds, an investigation from The Wall Street Journal found. Internal emails showed that hospitals refused or delayed transfers based on patients being uninsured, on Medicaid, or other insurance-related reasons. Some of these hospitals had 120 or more ICU beds available.
(Source: Melanie Evans, Alexandra Berzon, and Daniela Hernandez, The Wall Street Journal)
Drug company relies on $1 Billion in taxpayer funding to develop Covid-19 vaccine, sets highest price of any vaccine-maker
Photo Credit: Ashley Walton for Free the Vaccine Boston
In August, biotech company Moderna set an estimated price for its Covid-19 vaccine at $32-$37 per dose for “some customers” (the vaccine requires 2 doses). This price is higher than any other Covid-19 vaccine so far, even though 100% of Moderna’s development costs were covered by US government funding. Since Moderna was nominated, their lower bound for vaccine price has declined, in part due to public scrutiny.
Moderna’s CEO clarified in November that they will charge governments $25 – $37 per dose, depending on the amount ordered. Although the US has placed an order for $1.5 billion in doses of the vaccine at a discounted $15 per dose, given the upfront investment by the US government, we are essentially paying for the vaccine twice.
Federal PPE task force gives lifesaving supplies to private companies to distribute, creating bidding wars and delay
Photo Credit: Diana Torres, nurse at Mount Sinai hospital in NYC, took this photo on March 21 2020, depicting the lack of protective gowns at the hospital
In late March, FEMA’s personal protective equipment (PPE) procurement task force led by Jared Kushner launched “Project Airbridge” to airlift PPE from overseas and bring it to the US quickly. But rather than distribute the PPE to the states, FEMA gave these supplies to six private medical supply companies to sell to the highest bidder, creating a bidding war among the states.
According to FEMA, 50 percent of the supplies were meant to go to designated pandemic “hot spots,” but no officials from the ten hardest-hit counties in the first Covid-19 wave could confirm that they received any PPE from Project Airbridge. In many cases, federal agencies outbid states on PPE orders or seized supplies that states had purchased, making it much harder and more expensive for states to get PPE in desperate times.
Judges for 2020 Shkreli Awards
Allen Frances MD
Professor and chairman emeritus at Duke University School of Medicine; author of Saving Normal.
Patricia Gabow MD, MACP
Former CEO of Denver Health and member of Lown Institute board of directors.