Of EpiPens and Weasels

Mylan NV has been taking a lot of abuse for sharply raising the price of its popular EpiPen. The Wall Street Journal explains the background on the price increase. It isn’t, as I would have assumed, a case of patent protection. The patent on epinephrine ran out years ago.

Rather, it turns out that keeping the anti-allergy dose sterile is difficult and expensive. Mylan’s competitors have had a hard time equaling the EpiPen’s quality, and its main rival, Auvi-Q, has been forced to recall its product because of “dosing problems.” Given the current price of the EpiPen, more competition will no doubt flow into the market, but Mylan evidently is taking advantage of its temporarily unchallenged position to make a little extra money.

Some have asserted that America’s health care system is responsible for the “extortionate” price of the EpiPen, but that can’t explain Mylan’s worldwide dominance. Actually, though, the U.S. system probably does play a role in this regard: patients are generally not spending their own money. Therefore, doctors reflexively prescribe an “EpiPen” rather than looking for cheaper alternatives. As you would expect, outrage over the EpiPen’s price increase has mostly come from patients with high-deductible policies.

So much for the EpiPen; now for the weasel.

Josh Earnest is perhaps the lamest of all recent White House press secretaries. He would be a punching bag if the White House press corps were in the mood to punch the Obama administration. On Wednesday, he was asked about the EpiPen during his regular press briefing. His responses were classic Earnest:

Q: [T]here’s a lot of discussion about the increase of prices for EpiPen. I don’t know if the President has been following this debate, but some in Congress are calling for a hearing, and Hillary Clinton has called the price spike “a troubling example of a company taking advantage of consumers.” I’m just wondering if the President shares that view and thinks that there’s anything the government can do to intervene there.

MR. EARNEST: Well, this certainly is an issue that’s gotten a lot of attention in the media over the last couple of weeks. I’ll start by saying that one of the goals of the Obama administration has been to limit the growth in health care costs, including trying to reduce costs of prescription drugs.

But then, why did the pharmaceutical industry support Obamacare?

And the Affordable Care Act has made an impact on putting downward pressure on health care inflation, but there certainly are some other steps that we believe the federal government should take. Unfortunately, all too often it’s Republicans in Congress who are standing up for pharmaceutical companies and not looking out for taxpayers and patients here in the United States.

So, what are those “other steps” that should be taken, but are being blocked by Republicans? It turns out there aren’t any; not that are relevant, anyway. That was just a little gratuitous partisanship. The weaseling continues:

So there certainly is more that we believe can and should be done in general to address the question of rising prescription drug prices. As it relates to this specific issue, obviously I’m not going to make a specific comment or specifically second-guess the pricing strategy or the business practices of one private enterprise. I will observe, however, that pharmaceutical companies that often try to portray themselves as the inventors of lifesaving medication often do real damage to their reputation by being greedy and jacking up prices in a way that victimizes vulnerable Americans. And I think it raises significant questions, even moral questions, in the minds of a lot of people.

So we certainly have seen other high-profile incidents of pharmaceutical companies that have taken a hit both to their reputation and their stock price for engaging in unscrupulous practices. And I think other companies, including other pharmaceutical companies, would be wise to learn those lessons.

Well, that’s some tough talk anyway. Mylan has been greedy by jacking up prices!

Q: Is this an example of a company being greedy and jacking up prices?

MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I’m not going to second-guess the specific business practices of a private company.

Q: Why not?

MR. EARNEST: There’s a role for private companies and private entities to make their own decisions, and we’re a government enterprise and we’re focused on some other things. So I’m not going to second-guess that.

It’s nice to know the Obama administration thinks there is a role for private companies to make their own decisions. For Josh Earnest, though, it’s another Emily Litella moment.