We need a structure to prevent the price hike of prescription drugs

In Masslive 6/30/17

During the Senate's debate on my proposal to create a bulk purchase program for EpiPens, I read an open letter from Dr. Mark Kenton of Mercy Medical Center to the CEO of Mylan, maker of the EpiPen.

Dr. Kenton wrote, "You do not know the look on a patient's face when they are struggling to breathe after a bee sting ... You have never seen the look of a parent when their child is unresponsive ... You have never performed CPR on a child ... You have never told a parent that their child is dead."

After reading this, I could have heard a pin drop on the Senate floor.

As a young parent, I am outraged by the idea that a family would have to pick between protecting their child and breaking the bank.

Since 2009, the price of an EpiPen has spiked nearly 500 percent, from $103.50 to more than $608.61 in 2016.

More than 10,000 school students in Massachusetts rely on EpiPens for emergencies. Our families are too vulnerable to price-gouging by greedy pharmaceutical CEOs doing their best to game a broken system.

And it's not just EpiPens: there has been an alarming trend of price hikes in recent years.

In 2015, for example, Martin Shkreli, then CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, raised the price of a drug used to treat AIDS overnight from $13.50 a tablet to $750.

This February, after naloxone proved to be effective at reversing opioid overdoses, one manufacturer more than doubled the price of a twin-pack of injectors from $690 to $4,500.

The cruel reality of these price hikes is that they happen years after the drugs are developed, so the increase in profits is not going to the scientist who found the cure, but the CEOs, financiers, and middlemen who exploit the system.

One way to help protect families from this blatantly unfair pricing is bulk purchasing.

Last year, Massachusetts began implementing a bulk purchase program for Narcan, another name for naloxone, after a bill I introduced became law in 2015.

The program enables first responders to buy large numbers of doses at reduced prices, the same way Costco, Walmart, or Amazon can. Thanks to this program, our police and fire departments are paying $35 per dose while the market cost is over $75.

Now, the State Senate is hoping to repeat this success with a bulk purchase program for EpiPens. Under the leadership of Senate President Stan Rosenberg and Ways and Means Chair Karen Spilka, the Senate included such a program in the Senate budget.

But we can't play whack-a-mole. It's not enough to chase after each medicine one at a time as the price shoots up. We need a structure that prevents the price hike in the first place.

That's why the Senate also supported an initiative to study bulk purchasing of all drugs of public health concern.

Our families can't continue to be at risk of random, sporadic price spikes when they need these medicines the most. Our citizens -- and patients -- need to be protected.

That's what bulk purchasing would do.

What Dr. Kenton has seen should shock all of us and motivate each of us to change a broken system.

Sen. Eric P. Lesser is chairman of the Joint Committee on Economic Development & Emerging Technologies & vice chairman of the Joint Committee on Financial Services. He represents the First Hampden & Hampshire District in Western Massachusetts.

Op-edEric Lesser