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Health Advocates Worry About The Rapidly Increasing Cost Of ‘Opioid Overdose Antidote’

Near a jug of used heroin needles, the man tells the photographer about using naloxone to reverse an addict’s heroin overdose. CREDIT: MEL EVANS/AP PHOTO
Near a jug of used heroin needles, the man tells the photographer about using naloxone to reverse an addict’s heroin overdose. CREDIT: MEL EVANS/AP PHOTO

In the midst of growing concern about the rising cost of prescription drugs, lawmakers are scrambling to slow down price increases for naloxone, a drug that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. Some versions of the life-saving drug are 17 times more expensive than they were two years ago — stunting efforts to combat a drug overdose crisis that’s causing thousands of deaths across the country.

House lawmakers passed 18 bills last week aimed at increasing access to naloxone, but congressional lawmakers are seeing a need to address price hikes, too.

“[There] will eventually be efforts to hold down the cost,” Rep. Patrick Meehan (R) told Politico.

Fire-rescue crews and local health organizations carry naloxone to revive overdose victims, and they are asking state and local governments to help them secure price discounts.

You have increased demand and a few people who control the pricing, so they can charge whatever they want.

“It’s not an incremental increase,” Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum and a proponent of equipping police with naloxone, told the New York Times. “There’s clearly something going on.”

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“You have increased demand and a few people who control the pricing, so they can charge whatever they want,” Eliza Wheeler, who runs the drug overdose prevention and education project for the Harm Reduction Coalition in Northern California, told Politico.

Currently, no laws require pharmaceutical manufacturers to disclose the costs driving their pricing decisions. But state lawmakers and even President Obama are trying to change that.

Lawmakers in at least 11 states have proposed legislation that would require pharmaceutical companies to explain their price hikes. President Obama included a drug-price-transparency provision in his $4-trillion budget plan.

Vermont is poised to become the first state to actually enact such a policy. A bill recently passed by the state legislature, and expected to be signed by Gov. Peter Shumlin (D), would require manufacturers of certain drugs deemed “in the public interest” to provide justification for their price increases. (“In the public interest” would be defined as the drugs that Vermonters spend “significant health care dollars” on.)

Drug pricing information can be sensitive — after all, these are competitive companies — so the bill protects the information from public inspection. The Attorney General, along with the state health care agency, would act as intermediary, publishing online enough drug pricing justification to inform the public while shielding companies’ most sensitive information.

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Some health advocates worry that companies will want to dodge this bureaucratic balancing act, accepting instead a $10,000 penalty from the state.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (D) released a statement Friday calling on pharmaceutical companies to be more socially responsible: “Opioid abuse is an epidemic across our country, yet drug companies continue to rip off the American people by charging the highest prices in the world because they have no shame.”

“The greed of the pharmaceutical industry is killing Americans,” he added, referencing recent cases of drug companies hiking prices for life-saving drugs.

Governor Blocks Access To Lifesaving Drug For Heroin AddictsHealth by CREDIT: APPhoto, Robert F. Bukaty, File Maine Governor Paul LePage (R) vetoed a bill Wednesday that could…thinkprogress.orgMost famously, former Turing Pharmaceuticals CEO Martin Shkreli bought the rights to the 62-year-old antiparasitic drug Daraprim, used to treat infections in AIDS patients, and raised the drug’s price by 5,500 percent practically overnight. Shkreli sparked massive backlash and became somewhat of a poster boy representing Americans’ dissatisfaction with Big Pharma.

Gilead Sciences priced its hepatitis C drugs at $1,000 a pill, putting the treatment out of reach for millions of patients and prompting a 20,000-page rebuke from two senators.

The drug manufacturer Eli Lilly raised eyebrows when it priced its lung cancer drug Portrazza at $11,430 per month — six times costlier than similar therapies.

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And an analysis by the Wall Street Journal found that drug company Pfizer sets its prices as high as it can without causing doctors to prescribe an alternative drug.

Cory Herro is an intern at ThinkProgress.