Stabbing at a Response to the EpiPen Saga

Mylan CEO Heather Bresch’s scattershot response to the price-gouging scandal is part-Pharma Bro, part obfuscation.

Jim Bourg / Reuters

Days after a backlash erupted against the pharmaceutical company Mylan, which has raised the price of EpiPens, a life-saving medical product, by over 400 percent in recent years, the company set out to address the crisis it had created.

On Thursday, Mylan announced it would offer a $300 coupon for EpiPens to help cover the hefty co-pays for certain customers, which inspired grumbles from pundits and politicians alike, who argued that the move will do nothing to slow rising drug prices, health-care spending, and insurance premiums. As Mylan’s stock dropped, it dispatched Heather Bresch, its well-compensated CEO, to defend the price hike and perform a ritual hand-wringing over the state of the American health-care industry. This is when things got interesting.

“Look, no one’s more frustrated than me,” Bresch offered in an interview with CNBC’s Squawk Box, hoisting blame upon the “system” and suggesting that the “four or five hands” that the product passes through before reaching the customer were the reason that costs had been driven up. While that may be part of the explanation, the most precipitous boost in the price, as The New York Times reported, also came as a generic version of the EpiPen seemed poised to enter the market. The cheaper generic was rejected by the FDA less than six months ago, which kept the EpiPen one of very few options for severe allergy sufferers, incentivizing Mylan to keep prices high.

In deriding the American system, Bresch also sought to circumvent blame by honing in on the protections that keep drug prices in check elsewhere in the world, such as the existence of nonprofit insurance collectives in Europe and the ability for them to negotiate over drug prices. As my colleague Olga Khazan noted earlier this week, “The EpiPen story may seem shocking, but it fits a pattern. Prescription drug prices are rising across the board. And for various reasons, many medicines are more expensive in the U.S. than they are elsewhere. (In France, EpiPens are sold by a different company, and they cost about $85 a pair.)” (In the U.S., they can cost as much as $600 for a package of two.)

The furor surrounding Mylan is the third memorable fit of public pique over a drug manufacturer’s decision to jack up prices on life-saving drugs in recent years. (The best-known offender, Martin Shkreli, the former CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, came to Mylan’s defense on Wednesday.) Bresch’s defense rested in part on the idea that high drug costs subsidize lower prices overseas. “We do subsidize the rest of the world... and as a country we’ve made a conscious decision to do that,” Bresch said. “And I think the world’s a better place for it.”

The most truthful and Shkreli-esque moment in Bresch’s PR tour came during an interview with The New York Times when she spelled out the philosophy behind a company that had a hit on its hands. “I am running a business,” Bresch told The New York Times. “I am a for-profit business. I am not hiding from that.” Bresch may claim to be frustrated, but it’s hard to believe she’s more frustrated than everyone else.