EpiPen price increases pose a dilemma for allergy sufferers

Although assistance programs are available, critics question why the price of a generic medicine is so high

Not too long ago, a bee sting on the golf course or failure to notice that there were peanuts in a chocolate chip cookie could mean sudden death from anaphylaxis for those with severe allergies. 

Fortunately, there's a reliable antidote for severe allergic reactions. It's called epinephrine, and for decades there've been easy-to-use injectors called EpiPens that allow allergy sufferers or their parents, teachers, or caregivers to administer a life-saving dose when it's needed. 

The EpiPen has been around in one form or another since 1977. It contains about $1 worth of epinephrine, but it costs $600 or more for a package of two in the United States, nearly a 1,000% increase of the $57 the EpiPen went for in 2007; Mylan Pharmaceuticals initially bought it from Merck in 1977, making the device a life-saver for Mylan as well as for the hundreds of thousands of consumers who rely on it.

The problem is that $600 is a lot of money for most people. Of course, some insurance plans cover some of the cost, but depending on the deductible and other factors, consumers can still wind up paying hundreds of dollars for an EpiPen two-pack.

The devices are sold only in two-packs because an injection provides only temporary relief and the patient may need a second injection to make it to the emergency room.

Oh, did we mention that the prescription has to be refilled every year? The theory behind this is that the epinephrine loses its potency over time.

In the case of children, some school districts have EpiPens on hand, but others require that parents provide a two-pack for their child. This could mean parents would have to buy at least two two-packs each year -- one for home and one for school. 

Why? "Because they could"

Mylan, which reported $2.56 billion in revenue for the second quarter of 2016, has been taking a lot of heat about the price increases lately. As Forbes put it in a recent article: "Why did Mylan raise EpiPen prices 400%? Because they could."

Mylan, in fact, has turned the generic drug business into something of a gold mine through skillful marketing of the EpiPen and other products. It has for decades given EpiPens away to get consumers accustomed to -- and dependent on -- them. 

Like other drug companies, Mylan provides discounts and even free products to some consumers who apply, but finding those programs can be difficult. Searches for "EpiPen assistance" and "EpiPen help" on the Mylan website produced no results.

A Google search turned up a site offering an EpiPen Savings Card, which provides discounts for those who are eligible -- a group that does not include those with no insurance or those on Medicare or other government-funded plans. 

There is an alternative

There is at least one similar product available, called Adrenaclick. It contains the same drug -- epinephrine -- and uses a similar "pen" to make it relatively easy to inject yourself or someone who needs help.

Adrenaclick is priced as low as $141 at Walmart and Sam's Club with a GoodRx discount, while the EpiPen was priced at $635 at Walmart using GoodRx, a discount program that is free but cannot be used to supplement existing insurance. 

Another product, Auvi-Q, was taken off the market after it was recalled earlier this year because of concerns about dosage.

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