EpiPen monopoly is not fair game

From the editorial board

A package of EpiPens, an epinephrine autoinjector for the treatment of allergic reactions, is displayed in Sacramento.
A package of EpiPens, an epinephrine autoinjector for the treatment of allergic reactions, is displayed in Sacramento. AP

As parents ready their children for the start of a new school year, filling backpacks with essentials, some families who have school-age children with allergies are finding it difficult to provide the most essential item of all: a lifesaving EpiPen.

Mylan, the only producer of the auto injector EpiPen, has raised its prices for the lifesaving device a whopping 450 percent since 2004. It now costs almost $600 for a two-pack.

That means the roughly 40 million Americans who have severe allergies to things like spiders, bees and foods such as nuts, eggs and shellfish have no choice but to pay Mylan’s price, or go without.

The price of going without is too high. Just ask the parents of Mercedes Mears, the Clover Creek Elementary School fifth-grader who died of a severe allergic reaction in 2008. Mercedes had a prescribed EpiPen available for her use but it was not provided to her by school personnel.

The Mears family sued the Bethel School District, believing Mercedes would still be alive had someone administered the emergency medication from the EpiPen device. According to the Mears’ attorney, Ben Barcus, "The jury concluded inconsistently that Bethel School District personnel were indeed negligent, but that their negligence was not the ‘proximate cause’ of Mercedes’ death."

Mercedes was one of millions of children who have been identified as high risk for food-related anaphylaxis. How many will have to go back to school this year without an EpiPen within arm’s reach?

If the answer is one, it’s too large a number.

Perhaps Mylan thinks it was being magnanimous this week by offering an EpiPen savings card and a Patient Assistance Program for those who qualify. This seems like the least it can do, considering the salary and bonus of Mylan’s CEO has increased by 671 percent since 2007.

Mylan’s stock has tripled over the same time period, which is no surprise considering that from 2013 to 2016, it raised EpiPen prices 15 percent every quarter.

Turns out those kids allergic to peanuts are a real moneymaker.

It’s not just EpiPens that are getting out of reach for the uninsured or those whose deductibles are too high. There are disturbing statistics of pharmaceutical companies making huge cost leaps all over.

So far, the only recourse against price-gouging companies is to try them in the court of public shame. This works for a while; as with Mylan, there may be a dip in stock prices and then it’s back to business as usual.

While all this righteous indignation against Big Pharma may feel good, it is reflective of our current health care landscape.

Mylan’s profit machine might point out it takes 12 years on average for a medicine to go from lab to drugstore, and that research and development for any drug is expensive. But these answers don’t come close to excusing the advantage the company took with its monopoly.

It may be easy to wag our finger over this recent debacle, but larger and more complicated questions lie beneath.

We have to ask ourselves: Are health products like the EpiPen best negotiated on the free market without government involvement? If the answer is yes, then Mylan did nothing wrong.

But if the answer is no — if there’s a prevailing belief that life-and-death medicine should not be powered by supply and demand but by something more essential, something that serves the public good like national defense and public schools — then politicians need to be allies against companies that undermine our collective welfare.