The rise and fall of Valeant Pharmaceuticals may be a teachable moment for the entire pharma industry: gouge the public at your peril.
On July 31, 2015, the Canadian company seemed like a pharma dream come true. On that date, Valeant’s stock price hit an all-time high of $257.53. Yet today, a mere eleven months later, its stock is in freefall, losing 92% of its value.
Valeant: A Riches to Rags Story
What happened? What could’ve gone so wrong?
The answer is: nearly everything. If the phrase “Murphy’s Law” hadn’t already been coined, it might well have been called Valeant’s Law instead. The worst part? Nearly all of the company’s wounds have been self-inflicted, the result of an almost psychopathic level of cynicism and plain old greed.
Valeant’s Downfall Started With a Vital Liver Medication
The trouble started innocently enough in 2010 when Valeant did what it does best – pharma company acquisitions – buying Aton Pharmaceuticals. Aton was the sole manufacture of a drug called Syprine. Used for decades as the only treatment for Wilson’s disease, an otherwise fatal liver condition, Syprine had been approved by the FDA in 1985.
Seizing a market opportunity with no competition (to this day Syprine has no generic equivalent), Valeant hiked the price of Syprine by 3,200% in the US. What had been a $1 per pill medication became a $300,000 per year nightmare.
A Profit-Centered Healthcare Company
Then-CEO Michael Pearson approached the pharma industry not as a provider of medicine to help people, but rather as a profit center built around “customers” whose very lives depended upon its products. Pearson intended to corner markets where buyers had no other choice but to pay whatever price was asked.
Flushed with increased profits and egged-on by exuberant stockholders, Pearson didn’t stop there. From 2010 to 2014, Valeant acquired over two dozen pharmaceutical companies and product lines like Retin-A and Bausch & Lomb.
Valeant Hits its Apex at $90 Billion
The pharma giant continued increasing prices until Bloomberg called Valeant “a poster company for aggressive price hikes.” Its liver drugs alone increased so much that a liver transplant is now cheaper than a lifetime of Valeant drugs. At its peak in 2015, the company was considered the most valuable company in Canada, worth about $90 billion.
Karma Catches Up to Valeant
However, the wheels were starting to come off the bus. By early 2016, scandal began to plague the company as Valeant itself admitted that it was being investigated by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).
What lay behind the confession, however, was a lie of omission: also investigating the company’s practices were the US Justice Department (DOJ), several states, two congressional committees, and Canadian drug regulators. Valeant also faces a class action lawsuit for one of its products (Cold-fX) and over $30 billion in debt.
Pharma Industry Blames Others for its Wrongdoings
Of course, some in the pharma industry continue to deny that the emperor has no clothes. In a Vanity Fair article, an unnamed pharma CEO put the blame on Wall Street for building a hedge fund around the company’s hot trajectory. Other experts point at lawmakers and say that the rigged healthcare system set up Valeant for failure.
Only some pharma insiders reluctantly admit that their own actions were to blame. Michael Pearson, Valeant’s outgoing CEO, said he regretted his actions. Did he actually regret robbing sick people – or just getting caught in the act?