Sometimes a news story seems a neat summation of everything that makes us grind our teeth. Several years ago a package of two EpiPens, an abundantly low tech (but frequently life-saving) medical device, was only $100. However, the cost has been recently jacked up to the stratosphere: $600 for the package of two. Why? Has something about this medical device been dramatically improved? The answer, in case you have not already guessed, is no. This six-fold jump in the price was instituted solely to line the pockets of the company that now produces them.
There are three aspects of this horrid episode of corporate piracy that are notably galling.
First, we have a heartless, perfectly coiffed pharmaceutical company CEO. Perhaps Heather Bresch’s only human loyalty is to the corporation paying her $19 million annual salary, but it might be worth at least acting like she cares about the effect of this staggering price increase on vulnerable patients. Her exceedingly candid explanations of the business benefits of predatory pricing practices have probably shocked the few Americans who still believe multi-national drug companies are our friends. Much like an abusive husband who blames his black and blue wife for annoying him, Ms. Bresch’s bland explanations for her actions seemed to boil down to the following: Capitalism made me do it.
In addition, our ever-growing suspicions about the supposed wonders of Obamacare factor into our frustration. Who can forget the massive and disruptive government-mandated overhaul of our nation’s health insurance industry that turned all of our lives upside down just a few short years ago? Wasn’t it guaranteed to prevent just this kind of insane price gouging? We are instead seeing breathtaking increases in health insurance premiums and deductibles—and, of course, the costs of the medications many of us need to stay alive—that are making basic healthcare more expensive than ever. If something that was expected to provide a safety net for desperately ill patients instead leaves them yet more vulnerable, it tends to rile even the most docile among us. To learn, on top of all this, that Ms. Bresch’s father is a leading U.S. Senator only leads us to wonder if insider government chicanery is enabling her company’s quest to further empty our wallets in order to increase their profits.
Finally, the sad story of the $600 EpiPen package highlights, with terrifying clarity, the sad truth that our corporate masters look at their customers and see only carbon-based life forms that are compelled to cough up cash. It would be nice if corporations occasionally pretended it was otherwise, but perhaps this expectation is utterly unrealistic. Back in 1970 the Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman published a famous (or perhaps infamous) essay whose title says it all: “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits”. Looking at the new $600 cost from this perspective, Ms. Bresch is acting with both ruthless rationality and a clear-headed sense of her true mission.
However, perhaps the most significant aspect of the $600 EpiPens is that it is a perfect encapsulation of just what is so frustrating to so many: we are pitiful pawns who are alternately abused or ignored by the powerful—and there seems to be nothing we can do to change this.
As I have written before, I am certain that 99% of the appeal of the candidacy of Donald Trump can be explained by the fact that he is a political outsider who is hated by political insiders. If there is ever to be the perfect opportunity for those who are pissed off to extend their middle fingers to our smug ruling elite, this election is likely it. Whether Trump wins or loses, one obvious result of his presence on the ballot is that it is now impossible to ignore the deep discontent that pervades so much of our nation. Many may cast their votes for many reasons that many will consider wrongheaded, but those votes will be cast—and perhaps by many, many more than pollsters might realize.
By the way, Ms. Bresch recently announced that her company, Mylan, plans to make a bargain “generic” package of the EpiPens available at a cost of only $300, a mere tripling of the price that that will still go far toward fattening their profits.
Hip-hip-hooray for truth, justice, and the American Way . . .