By Drew Gibson
Last night, while trudging through the endless cavalcade of reality shows on the TV guide, I came across a station that was playing The Gangs of New York. Naturally, I had to stop and watch it as I am constitutionally obligated to enjoy movies that meld 19th century American History with massive slo-mo fight scenes involving billy clubs and battle axes. Being set in 1850/60s New York City, one of the principle players in the film is the (dis)honorable Boss Tweed along with his massive Tammany Hall Political Machine that ruled all of the boroughs with an fleshy iron fist at the time. These were the good old days when politicians had the common decency to be brazen and reckless with their deception and graft. My favorite line in the entire movie comes when Boss Tweed says that, “The appearance of the law must always be upheld…especially when it’s being broken.” It’s a quote that could apply to the robber barons of old as well as their newer incarnations on Wall Street and Capitol Hill today.
Appearances: it’s all about how you market yourself. And, for the past 25 years, Gilead Sciences has presented themselves as the pharmacological ally of the HIV/AIDS community. To be sure, their resume reads like a who’s who of antiretroviral medications that have saved hundreds of thousands of lives. They are the ones responsible for some of the biggest drugs on the market, from Truvada to Atripla. There is no doubt that they have made major advancements in the field of HIV/AIDS treatment and now, if the FDA is to be believed PrEP prevention. And if you look at their website, you would see a company that describes itself as a selfless “corporate citizen” of planet earth, whatever that means. They are a veritable geyser of beneficence who is “committed to ensuring that a drug’s price is never a barrier to access.”1 All Gilead wants to do is be of service.
Then, how do we explain the inevitable moment of cognitive dissonance that hits us flush in the face when Gilead decides to pull its funding for The AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s global HIV/AIDS program? Since 2005, Gilead had been AHF’s leading donor, giving to the tune of around a million dollars a year, with their donations increasing as Gilead began taking a greater stake in the developing world. As it stands now, the AHF will get nothing from Gilead next year and tens of thousands of positive people across the globe will be denied life-saving treatment. How does a thing like this come to pass? The answer lies with our old friend Boss Tweed: money.
In the past year or so, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation has increased its pressure on drug companies to lower their obscenely high prices for antiretroviral medication. What qualifies as obscenely high? In the case of Gilead’s cash cow Truvada, it comes to a annual tab of around $13,0002. It seems perfectly natural that an organization fighting for the rights of HIV positive people would advocate for a lowering in drug pricing at a time when almost 2,400 Americans are on ADAP waiting lists and getting sicker. It is also perfectly natural for a for-profit corporation to tell the advocates to get bent and go about making piles of cash, but it mucks up appearances a bit.
So, in order to expedite the process, let me just spell out all of the wonderful side effects of Gilead’s otherwise magnanimous enterprise. The Grand Poobah of Gilead is Dr. John C. Martin, a man who—according to Forbes—is the 10th most compensated CEO in the world. What does being the 10th fattest fat cat in the world look like? Well, Martin makes $43.19 million a year through a combination of salaried earnings, bonuses, stock gains and a category simply labeled “other.” Even at the exorbitant prices that Gilead sets for it’s drugs, that man’s yearly compensation is enough provide HIV medication to everyone currently on ADAP waiting lists and still let the good doctor walk home with $12.5 million in his pocket at year’s end. Put another way, the CEO of Gilead could singlehandedly solve our nation’s ADAP waiting list crisis and still make more in a year than 99.9% of Americans will ever make in their life.
If you go beyond the board room, things don’t get much better for Gilead’s image as a company that, you know, helps people. Their first quarter revenues for 2012 came in at a robust $2.28 billion (with a b), which was up $350 million from the same time last year. Their product sales increased 19% during that time due, primarily from their sale of antiretroviral drugs3. At present, their stock is valued at about $51 a share, higher than most of their major competitors like Merck, GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer & Bristol Myers Squibb. As a business, they have been quite successful, providing consistently solid returns for investors and managing to return to pre-recessionary valuations.
As an member of the HIV/AIDS and global community, they have failed and failed rather impressively. To make billions of dollars off of the backs of the sick is one thing, but to do so and then withdraw the ounce of charity you had given because people have the gall to proclaim that the sky is blue and your prices are high is petty. I would encourage CEO John Martin, along with President John Milligan, CFO Robin Washington and all of the higher-ups at Gilead to leave the board room and take a plane, train or automobile down to places like Jackson, Mississippi and Washington DC. I want you step into West Baltimore or Mobile, Alabama and look your potential customers in the face and tell them you care about them. Read them your mission statement and ethical guidelines and tell them how committed you are to their health and well being. Go ahead and do that and head home and let me know if you can sleep.
– If you’d like an opportunity to support the men and women affected by these criminally unfair drug policies, come down to the Washington Mall on July 22nd for the Keep The Promise March on Washington, which is sponsored in part by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. You can find more about the march at www.keepthepromise2012.org
1 Quote taken from Gilead Sciences webpage: http://www.gilead.com