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)

#10

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.

(SOURCES: Isaac Arnsdorf, ProPublica; David Kocieniweski and Caleb Melby, Bloomberg)

JUDGES’ COMMENTS:

21st century capitalism is looking more and more like a parasite killing its host, humanity.

Casey Quinlan

Casey Quinlan

Private equity has no role in healthcare. None. Their goal is to get as big as possible, no matter who they hurt.

Brian Dixon

Brian Dixon

#9

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.

(Sources: Matthew S. Schwartz, NPR; Kent Sepkowitz, CNN; Alicia Ault, Medscape)

JUDGES’ COMMENTS:

Pandemics historically have always encouraged the cruelest quackery.

Allen Frances

Allen Frances

Peddling supplements and “cures” has become the new televangelism. That those “cures” are more likely to injure or kill people who take them.

Casey Quinlan

Casey Quinlan

#8

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)

JUDGES’ COMMENTS:

These so-called “Super Covid” tests were super expensive and super unnecessary

Shannon Brownlee

Shannon Brownlee

Dr. Murphy uses the tried and true health insurance tactic of obfuscation to bilk the system while simultaneously eroding public trust in doctors.

Brian Dixon

Brian Dixon

#7

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.

(Sources: Brian Kirpatrick, Texas Public Radio; Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times; Sophie Sherry, Chicago Tribune; Ron Judd, The Seattle Times)

JUDGES’ COMMENTS:

Doctors cannot trust their own hospitals to protect them even as they risk their lives to save their patients.

Any Holden Jones

Any Holden Jones

It is unconscionable for a hospital to not just fail to protect its workers and patients but to punish them for meeting their professional obligations of reporting a situation that is a public health threat.

Andrew Goldstein

Andrew Goldstein

#6

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.

(Sources: Jonathan Saltzman, The Boston Globe and follow-up piece in The Boston Globe)

JUDGES’ COMMENTS:

In an era of rampant misinformation and greed-driven decision making, this action should warrant loss of licensure. A case example of a failure of ethical leadership.

Mona Hanna-Attisha

Mona Hanna-Attisha

While failure to declare COI was bad, what was even worse was that Moderna “selected” Brigham and Women’s Hospital for the vaccine trial and Dr. Nabel sold Moderna stock, after it quadrupled in price with the vaccine development.

Patricia Gabow

Patricia Gabow

#5

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)

JUDGES’ COMMENTS:

This is what happens when giant drug corporations are run by capitalists instead of scientists.

John Sellers

John Sellers

Pharma’s true colors – the industry’s much ballyhooed commitment to patients – are laid bare at times like this.

Gary Schwitzer

Gary Schwitzer

#4

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.

(Sources: Bill Chappell, NPR; Priya Chidambaram, Rachel Garfield, and Tricia Neuman, Kaiser Family Foundation)

JUDGES’ COMMENTS:

How will families who lost loved ones in nursing homes ever be able to forget this ugly chapter of 2020?

Gary Schwitzer

Gary Schwitzer

When we as a society neglect people living with disabilities and our elders, we enable profiteers and government leaders to sacrifice them. This was pure laziness and immorality.

Andrew Goldstein

Andrew Goldstein

#3

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)

JUDGES’ COMMENTS:

Some deserve to live and others to die? Gives the lie to the idea that “we’re all in this together.”

Jeanne Lenzer

Jeanne Lenzer

Hospitals turning away patients because the profit margins were too small is an utter betrayal of trust.

Amy Holden Jones

Amy Holden Jones

#2

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.

(Sources: Christoph Steitz, Reuters; Ned Pagliarulo, BioPharma Dive; Bob Herman, Axios)

JUDGES’ COMMENTS:

We the People literally paid for this vaccine to be invented. It therefore now belongs to us. We should make it free for all in America.

John Sellers

John Sellers

This is so blatantly greedy from a company that has no track record in producing vaccines and built its current one with taxpayer help. Like taxing us all twice in the end.

Deborah Blum

Deborah Blum

#1

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.

Sources: Eoin Higgins, Common Dreams; Josh Marshall, Talking Points Memo; Amy Brittain, Isaac Stanley-Becker and Nick Miroff, The Washington Post; Joel Rose, NPR

JUDGES’ COMMENTS:

This failure to provide inexpensive PPE and to distribute the products broadly was a death sentence for far too many people.

Jeanne Lenzer

Jeanne Lenzer

The Trump administration repeatedly put the profits of private sector enterprises above the health needs of the American people and the safety of frontline healthcare workers.

Merrill Goozner

Merrill Goozner

Weekly news for people who want a radically better health system


Judges for 2020 Shkreli Awards

Deborah Blum

Deborah Blum

Director of the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT.

Shannon Brownlee

Shannon Brownlee

Senior vice president of the Lown Institute and author of Overtreated.

Brian J. Dixon MD

Brian J. Dixon MD

Owner of Mindful, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the TCU and UNTHSC School of Medicine www.drbriandixon.com

Allen Frances MD

Allen Frances MD

Professor and chairman emeritus at Duke University School of Medicine; author of Saving Normal.

Patricia Gabow MD, MACP

Patricia Gabow MD, MACP

Former CEO of Denver Health and member of Lown Institute board of directors.

Andrew Goldstein

Andrew Goldstein

Primary care doctor; Activist with On Call for Democracy and Progressive Doctors.

Merrill Goozner

Merrill Goozner

Editor emeritus at Modern Healthcare.

Mona Hanna-Attisha

Mona Hanna-Attisha

Pediatrician at Hurley Children’s Hospital and assistant professor
at Michigan State University.

Amy Holden Jones

Amy Holden Jones

Executive producer and creator of The Resident.

Jeanne Lenzer

Jeanne Lenzer

Independent journalist & contributor at The BMJ and author of The Danger Within Us

Victor Montori

Victor Montori

Founder of The Patient Revolution and author of Why We Revolt.

Casey Quinlan

Casey Quinlan

Founder of Mighty Casey Media LLC and advisory board member of The Light Collective.

Vikas Saini

Vikas Saini

President of the Lown Institute and co-Chair of the Right Care Alliance.

Gary Schwitzer

Gary Schwitzer

Publisher and founder, HealthNewsReview.org and adjunct associate professor at University of Minnesota School of Public Health.

John Sellers

John Sellers

Co-founder of The Other 98% and The Ruckus Society.