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Despite promise, Turing pharmaceuticals opts to keep list price of Daraprim high

"A reduction in Daraprim's list price would not translate into a benefit to patients," Turing Chief Commercial Officer Nancy Retzlaff said Wednesday.

By Doug G. Ware

NEW YORK, Nov. 25 (UPI) -- Despite a promise from its chief executive two months ago, Turing Pharmaceuticals said Wednesday it has decided to keep the price of an anti-infection drug high -- a sustained increase that generated a national outcry among patients this summer.

The cost of Daraprim, a medication used to treat infections like malaria and HIV, skyrocketed in September after Turing acquired exclusive marketing rights to the drug in the United States.

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The hike took the cost of Daraprim from about $13 per tablet to $750 per tablet -- a 5,000 percent increase. The change meant treatment for patients rose from about $1,100 to nearly $65,000 per year.

Critics slammed the company for escalating the cost of a drug that's been available since 1953 -- a drug that's a necessary treatment for millions of patients worldwide.

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Turing CEO Martin Shkreli, also a former Wall Street hedge fund manager, defended the increase at the time.

"The drug was unprofitable at the former price, so any company selling it would be losing money," he said. "At this price it's a reasonable profit. Not excessive at all."

"Yeah, I could see how it looks greedy," he told CBS News. "But I think there are a lot of altruistic properties to it ... absolutely.

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"With these new profits, we can spend all of that upside on these patients who sorely need a new drug, in my opinion."

Following nationwide criticism, however, Shkreli pledged to lower the price of the drug to make it more affordable to patients. Wednesday, though, Turing appeared to have changed its mind -- and stated its belief that lowering the drug's list price wouldn't have much impact on the medicine's affordability.

"A drug's list price is not the primary factor in determining patient affordability and access," Turing Chief Commercial Officer Nancy Retzlaff said in a news release. "A reduction in Daraprim's list price would not translate into a benefit to patients."

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Instead, the Swiss biopharmaceutical company said it wants to focus on making Daraprim affordable to hospitals and other medical facilities since that is typically where most patients first receive the treatment. For certain medical facilities, the company said, that 5,000 percent increase will be cut to a 2,500 percent increase.

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Health care experts say that's true in the beginning, but they noted that patients will still end up needing to take -- and pay for -- the medication if doctors at the hospitals instruct them to continue treatment at home.

"This is, as the saying goes, nothing more than lipstick on a pig," HIV project director for Treatment Action Group Tim Horn told The New York Times.

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Turing said it will still lower the price of the drug for some hospitals and begin selling 30-tablet bottles, as opposed to the more expensive 100-tablet bottles that were previously sold.

Also, the company said some insured patients won't pay any more than $10 per prescription and Daraprim will be available at no cost to uninsured income-limited patients -- a move designed to shift the burden of the drug's cost from patients onto insurance companies and taxpayers.

"By providing affordable access for hospitals and reaffirming our commitment that nearly all patients will receive Daraprim for $10 or less out-of-pocket per prescription," Retzlaff added. "That's what we have done."

Further, Turing said it will participate in state and federal assistance programs, like Medicaid.

"We pledge that no patient needing Daraprim will ever be denied access," Retzlaff said.

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Regardless of Turing's reasoning, some say, Daraprim is far more expensive now than it was just four months ago -- which means patients will have to dig deeper to pay for it.

"They are still pricing it way above what the price of the medication should be," Dr. Carlos del Rio, chairman of the HIV Medicine Association, said.

Last month, a competitor announced it will manufacture a version of the drug for about $1 per tablet.

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