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Bernie Sanders rejects donation from drug company CEO

Martin Shkreli (right), the drug executive who raised ire with a 4,000 percent price hike, donated $2,700 to Bernie Sanders in a vain attempt to get a meeting on the issue.

Reuters (left); Bloomberg

Martin Shkreli (right), the drug executive who raised ire with a 4,000 percent price hike, donated $2,700 to Bernie Sanders in a vain attempt to get a meeting on the issue.

This story was produced by Stat, a national publication from Boston Globe Media Partners that will launch online this fall with coverage of health, medicine, and life sciences. Learn more and sign up for Stat's morning newsletter at Statnews.com.

WASHINGTON — The man who has become the public face of rising drug prices says he has donated to presidential candidate Bernie Sanders — who has been bashing Big Pharma on the campaign trail — to try to get a meeting so the two can talk it out.

Sanders isn’t interested. His campaign said Thursday that he’s giving the money to a Washington health clinic instead — and the drug executive isn’t getting the meeting.

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Martin Shkreli, chief executive officer of Turing Pharmaceuticals, became one of the Democrats’ favorite villains after raising the price of the only treatment of a rare parasitic infection by 4,000 percent. He’s an unlikely supporter of the Vermont senator, a self-described socialist who has proposed letting people import cheaper prescription drugs from Canada and requiring Medicare to negotiate lower drug prices.

In an interview with Stat on Thursday, however, Shkreli confirmed that he’d donated $2,700 to the Sanders campaign — the maximum individual contribution — on Sept. 28.

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At the time, the campaign sent the Turing CEO a form e-mail full of populist fervor: “Our political system is corrupt. Big Money controls much of what happens. Together, you and I are changing that. Thank you again for your support. Best, Bernie.”

On Thursday, however, campaign spokesman Michael Briggs said Sanders won’t keep the money. Instead, the campaign will make a $2,700 donation to the Whitman-Walker health clinic in Washington. “We are not keeping the money from this poster boy for drug company greed,” Briggs said.

Shkreli made the contribution, he said, partly because he supports some of Sanders’ proposals — just not the ones about drug prices. But mainly, he said, he donated to get the senator’s attention in the hopes that he could get a private meeting to explain why drug companies set prices the way they do.

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Shkreli is “furious” that Sanders is using him as a punching bag without giving him a chance to give his side.

“I think it’s cheap to use one person’s action as a platform without kind of talking to that person,” Shkreli said in the interview. “He’ll take my money, but he won’t engage with me for five minutes to understand this issue better.”

Shkreli tweeted about his donation during Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential candidate debate, without saying how much he had given. He also challenged both Sanders and Clinton to say whether they’d prefer that he reduce the price of his company’s anti-parasitic drug, Daraprim, or use the money to develop a better treatment.

In the interview, Shkreli said he wouldn’t be surprised if Sanders gave the money back. But he wants Sanders to hear him out about why drug companies have to spend so much money on research and development — which he insists Turing does — and explain what he thinks is a reasonable amount for them to charge in return.

“I’d ask him, what role does innovation play in health care?” Shkreli said. “Is he willing to sort of accept that there is a tradeoff, that to take risks for innovation, companies have to invest lots of money and they need some kind of return for that, and what does he think that should look like?”

“And quite frankly, what I’m worried [about] is that he doesn’t have an answer for that, that he’s appealing to the masses, that he’s just kind of talking out of his rear end so that he gets some votes,” Shkreli said.

If Sanders gets his way and drug prices are limited, though, Shkreli said he’ll deal with it.

“Right now the rule of law in the United States is that drug companies can price their products wherever they see fit, not wherever he sees fit,” Shkreli said. “If the rule changes by congressional vote, then you know, I’ll adapt to the rules.”

During the debate, Sanders took pride in his fights against the drug companies, saying, “I would lump Wall Street and the pharmaceutical industry at the top of my list of people who do not like me.”

Still, Shkreli said he likes some of Sanders’ views. He said he is neither a Democrat nor a Republican, and believes both parties have good ideas. But he said he supports Sanders’ call for free public college for everyone, as well as better access to mental health care.

And he was especially enthusiastic when Sanders mentioned during the debate that he supported President Bill Clinton’s military intervention in Kosovo to prevent ethnic cleansing. Shkreli, who is Albanian, cited that statement on Twitter when he mentioned he had given money to Sanders.

“That hit me very hard. For a guy I didn’t expect to like, I couldn’t ignore that,” Shkreli said.

He also said he could support Jeb Bush, who seems “reasonable” to him. But he’s not impressed by Donald Trump, who reportedly called him a “spoiled brat.” Not true, Shkreli said: “I grew up in a very poor family.”

And he’s definitely not a fan of Clinton.

“I don’t think she really stands for anything. At least Bernie’s passionate and really kind of provocative,” Shkreli said. “I met Hillary years ago. I didn’t like her then, I still don’t like her now.”

David Nather can be reached at david.nather@statnews.com. Follow him on Twitter @DavidNather. Follow Stat on Twitter @statnews.
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