America at Large: NBA owner Mark Cuban a slam dunk for sick patient America

Billionaire entrepreneur makes vital medicine more accessible for vulnerable patients

Imatinib is often prescribed by doctors to those battling leukemia and certain other cancers. In America, patients without health insurance or with the type of rudimentary plan that refuses to cover many medications will be charged around $2,500 for one month’s prescription of the pills. A price far beyond the reach of almost every pocket, many sick people risk bankruptcy just to buy something their body desperately needs to try to survive. The sort of appalling dilemma that remains an all-too-common feature of this country’s perverse healthcare system.

Since last January, however, Imatinib has been available for $14.40 on costplusdrugs.com, an online dispensary run by Mark Cuban, the over-exuberant owner of the NBA franchise the Dallas Mavericks. Having seen generations of politicians and umpteen presidents fail to solve the problem of price-gouging by big pharmaceutical companies, a man synonymous with heckling referees in basketball arenas across America has stepped into the fray. In an unlikely pivot, he’s gone from vociferously protesting foul calls to calling out the wanton greed preventing the seriously ill from accessing what they need.

His noble attempt to undermine this most predatory of industries began in 2018 following a cold-call email. Dr. Alexander Oshmyansky, a Dallas-based polymath, asked the billionaire (who also features prominently on America’s version of the entrepreneurial circle jerk Shark Tank) to invest in a company he’d established to try to disrupt the price-gouging of essential medicines. Cuban immediately stumped up $100m, recognising this was more than a business proposition because 18 million Americans are prescribed drugs each year that they cannot afford to buy.

“It’s just wrong, that people have to choose between eating, you know, their rent, and taking their medications or buying their medications in the United States of America in 2022,” said Cuban. “It’s just wrong and it was obvious there was not going to be a political solution. And even the attempts that are being discussed don’t really get to the heart of the problem, setting a price or doing a discount against other prices. All these numbers work artificially to set retail and wholesale prices. The reality is the only number that matters is cost. What can we as the retailer or the distributor buy it for and how low can we sell it?”

READ MORE

With over 800 drugs already available on their site, Cuban’s company charges cost plus a mark-up of 15 per cent, a $3 pharmacy handling fee and $5 for shipping. A month’s supply of Abilify, often prescribed for those suffering from depression, costs $6 there instead of $671 at the chemist. Others have tried this tack before but the difference with this outfit is that Cuban brings deep pockets, name recognition and a reputation hard won around the NBA for getting things done. His peculiar way.

More than two decades have passed since he purchased the Dallas Mavericks for $280m (it’s now worth nearly ten times that), started to shake up basketball and remade the traditional staid role of a club owner. Eschewing the standard suit and tie for a t-shirt and jeans, he abandoned usual decorum, positioned himself prominently at courtside and became a conspicuous part of the action. Verbally assaulting officials and trash-talking opponents, he cut an animated character throughout every game. A brash persona that cost him $3m in fines, it earned him enough notoriety to feature in The Simpsons and to be asked to compete on “Dancing with the Stars”.

Beyond the larger-than-life gametime buffoonery, Cuban fundamentally changed the league. He spent a fortune making sure his players had the best facilities, the largest support staff and the most spacious and tricked out private jet for flying to away games; a crucial detail for some very tall men. Other clubs soon followed his lead. Even before the Oakland A’s revolutionised baseball by adopting analytics as a tactical weapon, he began applying the same principles to basketball and the Mavericks, a perennial losing franchise, turned into serial contenders and, eventually, won their first NBA title in 2011.

On every step of the ride, he has beamed like a man-child scarcely believing his luck – he famously used the capacious ballroom in his 24,000 square foot Dallas mansion for wiffle ball games with pals. He also retains the enthusiasm of somebody who knows his career trajectory is down to an amalgam of clever enterprise, hard work and sheer good fortune. After starting his first business in his teens (selling garbage bags door to door), Cuban figured out early that the internet could carry radio and video of live events and sold Broadcast.com, the company he created for that purpose, to Yahoo for $5.7bn in 1999.

His real break was that the deal happened just before the dotcom bubble burst, and, while he’s since amassed all the gaudy accoutrements that come with immense wealth, the super yacht, the private planes, the palatial spreads, and the NBA team, he’s also used his platform for good. Vehemently and eloquently anti-Trump (not the usual stance of the sporting plutocrat), there has been speculation in recent years he might run for president himself. Even if it’s only in its infancy and adding new medications each week, a socially conscious venture like this will only fuel that talk.

In Washington last weekend, 47 Republican senators, many from states with sizeable diabetic populations, voted against legislation to cap Insulin prices at $35. More evidence that Cuban’s idea is a slam dunk and America a sick patient.