Over 28,600 people died due to opioid overdoses nationwide in 2014, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data that was released this month. That’s quadruple the number of opioid deaths from the year 2000.
There is an antidote. It’s called Narcan, a drug that blocks the effects of drugs like heroin immediately after an overdose. It’s saved countless lives in states like New Hampshire, where opioid overdoses are up 73.5 percent year over year, and 2,800 doses were administered in the state from January to August alone.
The makers of the drug know this, and they are starting to make victims—and states—pay.
The auto-inject version of the drug that used to cost $575 for two doses now costs $3,750, according to Politico. The generic, Naloxone, isn’t much better: pre-crisis, the drug cost $1.84 per dose. Now, the drug costs 17 times that.
The FDA can’t do anything about it. It officially has “no legal authority to investigate or control the prices charged for marketed drugs,” which is why it couldn’t penalize noted, proud price gouger Martin Shkreli for a vital drug that treats toxoplasmosis.
But there is a way to stop price gouging on a drug that now saves thousands of lives a year during America’s burgeoning opiate epidemic: Demand answers from the drug companies, threaten to sue the hell out of them, and force them to pay for it.
That’s what Attorney General Maura Healey did in Massachusetts. After hearing countless complaints from first responders about the sudden surge in the price of the drug, she started investigating companies like California-based Amphastar Pharmaceuticals in April.
By August, the same company that doubled the price of its drug for no real reason agreed to pay the state $325,000 in a settlement. All of that money goes into a trust fund for bulk purchasing of the drug, which saves 25 percent off each vial.
It’s an inelegant solution, and it doesn’t fix the price gouging immediately. But it’s working, and the pharma companies are quite literally paying for it.
In a state where 11,000 naloxone doses were administered and 1,200 people died of opiate overdoses in 2014 alone, it’s the best Healey could do in three months without a law to help further.
“Opiates now take more lives in our state than car accidents and guns combined, so we have been working hard to make Narcan more accessible to all those who want it,” Healey told The Daily Beast.
“This bulk purchasing fund has helped us address dramatic price increases that have made the drug very expensive for first responders who need to administer this life-saving tool to overdose victims.”
Now, according to the Attorney General’s office, the price of naloxone is down to $20 per dose from $44 last year.
It worked in Massachusetts, but it may not work everywhere.
In Maine, where heroin deaths rose 31 percent in 2015, the state’s Governor Paul LePage simply does not want to help addicts.
“Naloxone does not truly save lives. It merely extends them,” he wrote in a press release after vetoing a bill that would increase access to Narcan in late April. “Creating a situation where an addict has a heroin needle in one hand and a shot of naloxone in the other produces a sense of normalcy and security around heroin use that serves only to perpetuate the cycle of addiction.”
Last week, he cited an apocryphal story of an unnamed Portland-area teenager who overdosed and was revived three different times in a week with “three Narcan shots.” There are no records of this ever occurring, according to Maine police reports.
Such obstructionism has pushed local media to both excoriate LePage and demand the state’s AG to take a similar posture to Healey, citing her plan’s immediate success.
But the state is now seeking bipartisan efforts to override its governor’s empathy-free style of leadership. Republican Senator Susan Collins demanded an explanation for the cost increase in letters to all five companies that make Naloxone. Democratic Congresswoman Chellie Pingree said that Congress should take action to stop it soon.
“I think that the pharmaceutical manufacturers take advantage of people in need. The idea that this has been around since 1971 and the prices have gone up 17 times recently now because of high demand,” she told Maine Public Radio. “It’s got to be about greed.”
Until she drafts a bill, the only proven way to stop that corporate greed is to sue it out of them.