Big Pharma Price Gouges Heroin Overdose Reversal Drug

By Zachary Siegel 03/25/16

As naloxone becomes more accessible, one pharmaceutical company is being called out for hiking the price of the lifesaving drug.

Big Pharma Price Gouges Heroin Overdose Reversal Drug
photo via Shutterstock

On Tuesday, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform met for a hearing on America’s opioid epidemic, wherein Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) derided a company that makes and sells naloxone, the antidote to opiate poisoning, for significantly raising the price of the lifesaving drug.

“As more first responders began using this drug, the company that makes it, Amphastar, began to increase its prices by staggering amounts,” said Cummings. “In May 2014, a 10-dose pack cost the Baltimore City Health Department roughly $190. Guess what? Today, it costs more than $400 for a life-saving drug.”

Since opioid abuse has taken center stage in mainstream political discourse, first responders, law enforcement, firefighters, and even school nurses have been equipped with naloxone, also known by its brand name, Narcan. Pharmacies like Walgreens and CVS recently made the antidote available in some states without a prescription. 

Cummings accused the company, Amphastar Pharmaceuticals, Inc., of hiking its price for naloxone as demand increased. “We can no longer allow drug companies to keep ripping off the taxpayers for life-saving medications,” Cummings said during his opening remarks. 

He continued, “Cities all around the country have recognized the need to equip their first responders, police officers and public health officials with naloxone—a drug that can reverse opioid overdoses in a matter of minutes.” Evidenced-based public policy, he argued, is being “undermined by corporate greed.”

According to statements released by Amphastar, the company has made millions in revenue from naloxone sales. In its most recent press release, the company attributes a significant increase in revenue to a rise in sales of naloxone—which, by the end of 2015, had risen from $19.2 million to $38.6 million. 

In 2014, The Fix interviewed Chicago harm reductionist Dan Bigg, who recalled a time before the price of naloxone skyrocketed. “A 10cc vial of naloxone was $1.43 in the late ‘90s [back] when there were 4 or 5 manufacturers,” he told The Fix. When Bigg asked his local pharmacist in 2014, he found that a 10cc vial cost $331. The price since then has only gone up, along with the death toll.

However, some have been able to work around the rising cost of naloxone, like Massachusetts, where state Attorney General Maura Healey was able to strike a deal with Amphastar to offset the drug's price by making a bulk purchasing agreement with the company. Other states, like New York, New Jersey, and Ohio, have also made deals with the company to cut and cap the price for state agencies and treatment facilities.

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.