Pharmaceutical chief Martin Shkreli refused to testify Thursday in an appearance before U.S. lawmakers over severe price hikes for a drug sold by a company that he acquired, yet even without answering questions managed to leave them infuriated.
Shkreli appeared to smirk throughout his hourlong appearance, and moments after it ended, insulting tweets began to appear under his official Twitter account calling the lawmakers "imbeciles."
Shkreli, widely scorned for hiking the price of a long-established and potentially lifesaving drug by more than 5,000%, exercised his 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination when he went before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Four times the brash entrepreneur and former hedge fund manager — who has been unapologetic about the price hikes, intoned before the committee, "On the advice of counsel I invoke my 5th Amendment privilege against self-incrimination and respectfully decline to answer your question."
Lawmakers erupted in anger. Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the committee, told the 32-year-old Shkreli to wipe the smirk off his face.
"I call this money blood money ... coming out of the pockets of hardworking Americans," he said, as Shkreli sat through the lecture. "I know you are smiling, but I am very serious, sir," Cummings said. "I truly believe you can become a force of tremendous good. All I ask is that you reflect on it. No, I don't ask, I beg that you reflect on it. "
Shkreli was dismissed less than an hour into the hearing, but not before Chairman Rep.
Minutes after Shkreli walked out of the room, on his official Twitter account appeared the message, "Hard to accept that these imbeciles represent the people in our government."
It could not immediately be confirmed if those tweets were written by Shkreli.
Cummings, attributing them to Shkreli, boiled over. "There are very real issues for people with compromised immune systems," he thundered as he asked Turing executive Nancy Retzlaff to interpret the messages on Shkreli's Twitter account.
Shkreli faces separate criminal charges of securities fraud in connection with another drug company he owned.
The lawmakers had summoned him to answer for the decision that made him infamous: raising the price for Daraprim, the only approved drug for a rare and sometimes deadly parasitic infection.
Shkreli, who pleaded not guilty after his arrest in December in New York, has been free on $5 million bail. He walked into the packed hearing room well before the session began and met the crush of cameras. Even a few members of the House panel were swept up in the curiosity and snapped Shkreli's photo on their cellphones.
Also appearing before the lawmakers was Turing's chief commercial officer and the interim chief executive of Canada's largest drugmaker, Valeant Pharmaceuticals. Documents from Valeant and Turing show they have made a practice of buying and then dramatically raising prices of low-cost drugs given to patients with life-threatening conditions, including heart disease, AIDS and cancer, according to excerpts released this week by the House panel.
The two companies' executives insisted they were committed to ensuring that cost isn't a deterrent for patients who need the drugs.
With Shkreli mum, it was up to Retzlaff to defend the Daraprim price increase. She said about 3,000 people are treated by Daraprim, and only 25% are covered by commercial insurance. She added that the overall impact of the drug on the budgets of commercial health plans "is very, very small."
Documents show how executives at both companies planned to maximize profits while fending off negative publicity over the price hikes.
Presentations by Turing executives, part of the trove of documents obtained by the panel, show that as early as last May, the company planned to turn Daraprim into a $200-million-a-year drug by dramatically increasing its price. Turing bought the 60-year-old drug from Impax Laboratories in August for $55 million and swiftly raised its price.
Shkreli said in an email to one contact: "We raised the price from $1,700 per bottle to $75,000. Should be a very handsome investment for all of us."
But anticipating a possible backlash, the company warned in an internal memo that advocates for HIV patients might react to the price hike.
Valeant likewise identified revenue goals first and then used drug prices to reach them, committee staff said in a memo. It said Valeant believed it could repeatedly raise the prices of Nitropress and Isuprel without repercussions because they're administered by hospitals, which are less price-sensitive than consumers.
Valeant used patient assistance programs to distract attention and justify its price hikes, according to the memo.