UPDATE: EpiPen price hike has parents of kids with allergies scrambling
A price hike of over 400 percent has parents asking questions about the important drug pen.
UPDATE: Those with life-threatening allergies are facing skyrocketing prices for their medicine. An EpiPen administers the drug Epinephrine when someone experiences a severe allergic reaction. It now costs patients five times as much compared to a decade ago. The rising cost is adding pressure on parents as they send kids back to school on alert for allergic reactions.
The injection works automatically, preventing any swelling or inability to breathe. But now these quick fixes come with a large price tag.
Michelle Frank's son has been using EpiPens for four years. The recent rise in cost has left her choosing between his health and her wallet. “When it comes to your child's safety you pay what you pay, get what you get to get it,” said Frank.
In 2008, an EpiPen two-pack cost about one hundred dollars. Gradually the price has risen to six hundred dollars. “A dollar worth of medication, $600 injector has a dollar worth of medicine in it,” said Doctor Marc Cromie with the Chattanooga Allergy Clinic.
The Frank family has to buy four EpiPens each year so they are readily available in case of an emergency. “One for yourself, one for child care, one for school, one for grandparents,” said Frank.
Doctor Marc Cromie has been studying allergies for 16 years. He said the price has increased but the technology hasn't changed. “Epinephrine is cheap; it's generic, not very expensive. The money is in the technology.
He believes EpiPen is trusted by many. He said the cost continues to escalate because there's no competition on the market. He's concerned patients won't get them filled because of the price. “Not buying it because they can't afford it. It is a mortgage or car payment for some of these families, $600.”
These quick fixes have a shelf life of a year, so families are constantly restocking. “If the color of the drug is cloudy or yellow, if it gets too hot or freeze in the cold winter months, may not be effective.”
An investment the Frank Family is forced to make, because they can't put a price tag on safety. “He could quit breathing, swells up, throat swells up. Very expensive making sure everyone has the EpiPen they need.”
EpiPen is made by the company Mylan and they said they do offer coupons for people up to $100. Unfortunately people with high deductibles still have to pay the majority of the cost out-of-pocket.
Executives at the company that makes the device gave themselves enormous raises. The Mylan CEO's salary increased 671 percent to nearly 19-million dollars between 2007 and 2015.
During that same time the wholesale cost of an EpiPen went from 56 dollars to 317 dollars, a 461 percent increase. Bloomberg reports that salaries for other top executives at Mylan also rose by more than 10-percent.
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Parents getting ready for back-to-school season have another item to toss in the basket along with Trapper Keepers and boxes of pencils — and they're facing sticker shock at the latest price increase.
Doctors and patients say the Mylan pharmaceutical company has jacked up the prices for an EpiPen — the portable device that can stop a potentially life-threatening allergic reaction — from around $100 in 2008 to $500 and up today.
That's a hike of over 400 percent.
Now former pharmaceutical executive Martin Shkreli has weighed in, calling the Mylan company "vultures."
U.S. Senators are scrutinizing the price hikes, with one calling for an FTC probe. Connecticut Senator Richard Bluemnthal, who pushed for emergency epinephrine to be stocked in public schools, pledged Friday to investigate the "shocking increase."
"Patients are calling and saying they can't afford it," said Dr. Douglas McMahon, an allergy specialist in Maplewood, Minnesota. "They're between a rock and a hard place."
Following a recall by Mylan's chief competitor last year, the company now enjoys a near monopoly.
Because of aggressive marketing and branding campaigns, and lobbying for legislation that requires the product to be stocked in schools, they have a brand dominance equal to that of Kleenex, doctors say.
About the size of a fat marker, they are carried by many parents of kids with severe allergies wherever they go — ready to jam the gizmo into their child's thigh to deliver epinephrine and stop anaphylactic shock from a potentially fatal bee sting or bit of peanut.
And because they have a stated expiration date of one year, parents refill them annually, incurring an additional co-pay each time.
Tracy Bush, a 42-year-old mom and food allergy consultant, never goes anywhere without two EpiPens on her. Her son, age 14, carries another. She began doing so after he was diagnosed with severe allergies as a 2-year-old.
For the past 10 years, she has watched the price she paid for her refills rise higher and higher with no discernible improvement to the device or medicine.
In 2008, Bush said the price was $145.99. In 2010, it was $220.99, then jumped to $649.99. This year her pre-insurance costs were $1,118.08.
Despite the hikes, Bush was glad to have the device two years ago when her son had a bad reaction while eating some watermelon.
"He said it felt like a potato chip was caught in his throat. Then he got a look of terror on his face. His voice was totally different, it sounded like he had sucked helium. I was like 'Oh my goodness, I'm going to have to use an EpiPen,'" she said. "I will never forget the look that I saw."
In a statement, Mylan said that the prices have "changed over time to better reflect important product features and the value the product provides," and that "we've made a significant investment to support the device over the past years."
The company also offers coupons on its website that can reduce costs. This year, for the first time, Bush was able to use those coupons and her "good" insurance plan to bring down her out-of-pocket costs to zero. But not everyone can do the same.
"When epinephrine only costs a few cents, but they're going up to $500, personally I don't think that's ethically responsible," said Dr. McMahon.
And he understands better than most what costs are involved: For the past few years he's been developing his own, smaller version of the EpiPen, and trying to get it approved by the FDA and bring it to market. He estimates that process costs about $1.5 million. In 2015, Mylan's profits from the sale of EpiPens rose to $1.2 billion.
McMahon says his device will retail for about $50.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the former presidential contender and a member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, told NBC News in a statement:
"The drug industry's greed knows no bounds. There's no reason an EpiPen, which costs Mylan just a few dollars to make, should cost families more than $600. The only explanation for Mylan raising the price by six times since 2009 is that the company values profits more than the lives of millions of Americans."