Robert Gehrke: Not only did Utah buy unproven meds to treat coronavirus, it paid way, way too much for it

(Steve Griffin | Deseret News/pool) Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert removes his mask before speaking during the daily COVID-19 briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, April 24, 2020.

The state of Utah’s contract to buy a bunch of antimalarial drugs its backers touted as a treatment for COVID-19 was disastrous in almost every imaginable way.

There is still no reliable evidence that the drugs help treat this virus, just as the experts have been saying from the start.

After a Veterans Administration study found no benefits from the drugs and, indeed, potential harms, the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration warned against using them outside of a hospital setting.

And Utah taxpayers are the proud owners of $800,000 in useless pills. Well, sort of. The pharmacy, Meds In Motion, still hasn’t delivered them, nearly a month after the contract was signed.

What’s more, as I discovered Friday, the state paid far, far more for the medications than they were ever worth. How much more?

Your $800,000 was supposed to buy 20,000 packets, each with seven pills in them. That means it would cost $40 per packet, or just under $5.75 per tablet.

Robert Gehrke

To find out how much hydroxychloroquine typically costs, I contacted Erin Fox, the senior pharmacy director for University of Utah Health. She said 200 mg of brand-name hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil) costs 90 cents per tablet. The generic versions cost the hospital between 10 cents and 50 cents each.

So why would the state pay $5.75 per pill? “I have no comment on that,” Fox said.

The website GoodRx, which drives the cost of many medications, lists the average retail price for 60 pills as $177 — that would be $2.95 per tablet — but discounted prices are as low as $15 at several pharmacies — 25 cents a pill retail. Intermountain Healthcare lists it at about $20.

The pills Meds in Motion had promised aren’t exactly the same. They’re a higher dose and combined with zinc, so I asked another pharmacist — who asked to not be named — to calculate what the packs should cost. This pharmacist estimated it would be about $6 each, or 85 cents per tablet.

Not $40.

But wait, this was a crisis and there was a shortage, right? Not really.

While there were reports about shortages of the drugs nationally, that never reached Utah.

Fox, the U. pharmacy director, said the health system decided early on that it would prioritize their lupus and rheumatoid arthritis patients and not fill new prescriptions that were written by doctors just to have on hand in case of COVID-19 outbreaks.

“We haven’t really had a shortage here,” she said. “We have had enough for our chronic patients.”

The same is true in the Intermountain Healthcare system, which has had an adequate supply and has not had challenges getting more, said spokesman Daron Cowley.

(John Locher | AP file photo) An arrangement of hydroxychloroquine pills in Las Vegas on Monday, April 6, 2020.

The U. is conducting a trial of the medication in conjunction with Intermountain and administering it to as many COVID-19 patients as it can, Fox said.

Two more problems with the state contract: While Meds In Motion can fill individual prescriptions for the drugs, it appears they aren’t licensed to legally distribute the drugs to other pharmacies, as was envisioned by the state.

Second, combining the malaria drugs with zinc — if that ever actually happened — means that the medicine is now basically unusable for lupus or arthritis patients.

On Friday, Gov. Gary Herbert said the initial contract came about “unbeknownst to me” and he ordered a review of how it happened, why it happened, and how much the state paid. He also said the state would not spend any more on the drugs.

“I have some questions about how this came about, the transparency,” Herbert said. “The situation in its entirety is now under review by our legal counsel.”

The governor isn’t the only one who should be investigating. Utah law prohibits price gouging during an emergency, banning price hikes of more than 10%. In this case, it looks like the cost was jacked up more than 600%.

Better yet, Meds In Motion could acknowledge the contract was done in bad faith, that they haven’t and probably never could deliver what they promised, and simply agree to return the money to taxpayers.

In a larger context, the entire hydroxychloroquine cure has been a fiasco since the start. It spread faster on social media than the coronavirus, ripping through Fox News and inevitably becoming a pet issue for President Donald Trump.

And that’s where the battle lines were drawn. Expertise and science — or lack thereof — didn’t matter anymore.

In Utah, powerful politicians like Senate President Stuart Adams threw their weight behind the unproven medicines. Irresponsible doctors said patients who took them were like “Lazarus” coming back from the dead. Anyone who questioned their efficacy was written off as a Trump-hater, even if it wasn’t true.

With a vicious disease claiming thousands of lives, we all wanted something to work, but first we should have wanted a shred of real proof. Unfortunately, there was simply no room in our current climate to have that rational discussion and so we were sold hope — which is a powerful thing.

But when you compound hope with hype and greed, it can be toxic and Utah taxpayers may ultimately end up paying for it.