One of a parent’s worst nightmares is seeing a young child gasping for breath as a result of an allergic attack and being powerless to do anything about it.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) still recalls the time her young daughter ate a cashew and reacted violently to it, “and we had no idea what was going on and rushed her to the hospital,” she told MSNBC on Tuesday. “Every parent knows what I’m talking about who has a kid with an allergy.
For years, EpiPen, a medical injection device that can be easily jabbed into a person’s thigh, has been a lifesaver for hundreds of thousands of young people and adults who suffer life-threatening reactions to cashews and peanuts, shellfish, bee stings and other allergens. The handy EpiPens dispenses epinephrine, a drug that alleviates or reverses the worst of allergic reactions, such as the swelling of legs, necks and chests and the abrupt closing of airways. Parents often purchase multiple sets of EpiPens and keep them available at home, in their cars and at school.
At one time, the retail price in a pharmacy for a two-pen set was less than $100, according to pharmaceutical industry data. But after pharmaceutical company Mylan acquired the rights to the decades-old injectable drug in 2007, the price began to rise exponentially.
Last May, the retail price soared once again, this time to $608 for a two-pen set – a six-fold increase in less than a decade that has seriously driven up wholesale costs of the device and put increased financial pressure on consumers and health insurance providers to adjust to the blatant price gouging. Even the wholesale prices have rocketed during the same period, from just $56.64 to $365 for a two-set packet, according to one industry analysis.
Mylan’s sales from the sale of EpiPens reached $1.2 billion in 2015, according to Bloomberg. The price hike has generated a national uproar in recent days, and nearly 63,000 people have signed a petition demanding that Congress investigate “the oppressive price increases.”
The petition notes that many families have been forced to turn to manual syringes as a cheaper alternative to the EpiPens, although that makes it harder and more time consuming to get the right dosage.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, wrote Mylan Chief Executive Heather Bresch on Monday demanding to know how the company determined the price of EpiPens and what changes or improvements had been made to the product to justify the higher prices.
As prices of EpiPens went up, so did the company stock, which tripled from $13.29 in 2007 to a high of $47.59 this year, as well as executives’ salaries. NBC reports that Bresh’s compensation jumped from $2,453,456 to $18, 931,068 – a 671 percent increase.
Meanwhile, Klobuchar, the ranking Democrat on the committee's antitrust subcommittee, requested the Federal Trade Commission investigate the price increases to determine whether Mylan, currently the sole manufacturer of the EpiPens, had engaged in restraint of trade.
"Although the antitrust laws do not prohibit price gouging, regardless of how unseemly it may be, they do prohibit the use of unreasonable restraints of trade to facilitate or protect a price increase," Klobuchar said in the letter.
In a statement, the company said that Mylan “has worked tirelessly over the past years advocating for increased anaphylaxis awareness, preparedness and access to treatment.” Mylan said it is proud of patient-assistance programs it has implemented to help support access to treatment. Since the start of the “EpiPen4Schools” initiative in 2013, more than 700,000 free auto-injects have been distributed in more than 65,000 schools.
However, the company said that with changes in the healthcare landscape, “an increasing number of people and families are enrolled in high-deductible health plans, and “deductible amounts continue to rise.”
“This shift has presented new challenges for consumers, and they are bearing more of the cost,” the company said, but without explaining why the cost of the drug injector itself has gone up so high. “This change to the industry is not an easy challenge to address, but we recognize the need and are committed to working with customers and payers to find solutions to meet the needs of the patients and families we serve.”
Mylan asserts that it offers a $100 coupon that allows many consumers to pay very little or nothing for the EpiPens. However, Michael Rea, the chief executive of Rx Savings Solutions in Overland Park, Kansas, told The New York Times that people without health insurance or with high-deductible insurance plans can’t always use the coupons and are paying roughly $640 per set.
Mylan is the latest entry in the pharmaceutical industry price-gouging hall of shame. Gilead Pharmaceutical has long been criticized for its retail pricing of Sovaldi and Harvoni, two biometric drugs for the treatment of the often deadly Hepatitis C virus that cost as much as $1,000 per pill or $100,000 for a full treatment. A top executive of Valeant Pharmaceutical apologized to Congress in April after it purchased the rights to Nitropress and Isuprel, two heart and blood pressure medicines, and then jacked up their prices by 212 percent and 525 percent, respectively.
Turing Pharmaceuticals, headed at the time by wealthy hedge fund manager Martin Shkreli, obtained the manufacturing license for an anti-parasitic drug called Daraprim and then raised the price by 5,556 percent. Shkreli, who was later forced out of the company, became the poster child for corporate greed in the pharmaceutical industry.
Ironically, he condemned Mylan this week during an interview with NBC News. "These guys are really vultures,” he said. “What drives this company's moral compass?"