Valeant sells mercy, for a price

Pharmaceutical Companies Hiked Price on Aid in Dying Drug

By April Dembosky
KQED, March 22, 2016

When California’s aid-in-dying law takes effect this June, terminally ill patients who decide to end their lives could be faced with a hefty bill for the lethal medication. It retails for more than $3,000.

Valeant Pharmaceuticals, the company that makes the drug most commonly used in physician-assisted suicide, doubled the drug’s price last year, one month after California lawmakers proposed legalizing the practice.

“It’s just pharmaceutical company greed,” said David Grube, a family doctor in Oregon, where physician-assisted death has been legal for 20 years.

The drug is Seconal, or secobarbital, its generic name. Originally developed in the 1930s as a sleeping pill, it fell out of favor when people died from taking too much, or from taking it in combination with alcohol. But when intended as a lethal medication to hasten the death of someone suffering from a terminal disease, Seconal is the drug of choice.

In 2009, Grube remembers the price of a lethal dose of Seconal — 100 capsules — was less than $200. Over the next six years, it shot up to $1,500, according to drug price databases Medi-Span and First Databank. Then Valeant bought Seconal last February and immediately doubled the price to $3,000.

Most drug companies justify such hikes by pointing to high research costs. But Grube says that’s not the case with Seconal. It’s been around for 80 years.

“It’s not a complicated thing to make, there’s no research being done on it, there’s no development,”  he says. “That to me is unconscionable.”



By Don McCanne, M.D.

One of my father’s favorite phrases was, “There oughta be a law…” Whenever I heard that, I knew a bit of wisdom with a moral message would follow.

Dad’s last three weeks of life was spent in a hospital and could not have been more miserable (this was in the 1970s, before hospice). He had multiple myeloma and had extensive pathological fractures. When the nurses had to turn him, the pain was intolerable. He did not tolerate the narcotics administered as they aggravated his vomiting and obstipation. As a physician, he understood well his status.

At the last relatively rational conversation I had with him, he said, “Don, there oughta be a law. When the tiny bit of good that happens in a day cannot possibly even begin to compensate for the profound, unrelenting pain and suffering, your physician should be able to authorize the placement of a bottle of sleeping pills on the nightstand next to your bed.”

No such bottle appeared. The agony persisted for several more days, without even any fleeting moments of contentment, before he slipped into his final coma. In spite of my reverence for life, I knew this wasn’t right.

Today’s message on Valeant's price gouging for Seconal - price gouging timed to capitalize on California’s new aid-in-dying law - would normally lead to my usual diatribe on the evils of dysfunctional health market dynamics in the U.S. But this time, it led to tears - mine.

How can we leave our health care system under the control of the rentiers in the medical industrial complex? Dad would have said, “There oughta be a law.” And we know what that law would be - an improved Medicare for all that spends money exclusively for the benefit of patients.

Why am I not out there helping to organize the marches on Washington and our state capitols on behalf of health care justice for all? For that matter, why aren’t you?