"Epipen Outrage: Unbridled Greed and The American Health Care System"

By Dr. Mark Poindexter

For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.”  I Timothy 6:10

The cost of drugs is something that I have been keenly aware of for more than a decade now.  In fifth grade, my daughter, Michele, was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. Over time and trial, it was determined that the best option for Michele was drug therapy which would be given through an infusion every two months.   The drug would not cure her illness, but it would treat her symptoms and hopefully allow her to stay in remission.  We are grateful that drug has done its work and Michele has been able to live in the most comfortable way possible with her illness.  Over the years, she has had approximately sixty such treatments. The charged cost of the medicine to treat her illness over this time is about $750,000.  That doesn’t include the doctor or hospital bills, the charges for the use of the infusion center room and the other medical supplies that have to be used during her infusions.  Just the main medicine has come at a cost of about $75,000 a year.  I am extremely grateful of the relief that this medicine gives to my daughter and for the doctors who cared for her and recommended this course of treatment.  The care given to her has been exemplary and the outcome for us could not be better.

I also know that my family has been one of the better provided for when it comes to caring for someone with a chronic illness.  In addition to having major medical insurance, there was rebate program for the medicine provider in which we could take part and we did.  Still, even with the insurance and the rebate program, because of deductibles, out-of-pocket expenses, and pharmaceutical co-pays, Michele’s medical bills averaged between $400 and $500 a month.  It was a significant percentage of a pastor’s salary.  Again, my family was fortunate.  Some members of the church I was serving for much of that time helped us cover those monthly expenses. For that gift I will always be grateful. Like, I said my family has been one of the better provided for when it comes to medical care for someone with a chronic illness.

My own journey through medical costs came to mind this week when I heard that from 2009 to 2016, Mylan Pharmaceuticals, maker of the Epipen has raised the price of this medicine, which can be life-saving for those with certain allergies, by more than 400 percent. In 2009, a two-pack Epipen cost $100 and now that same product costs $600.  A vial of the medicine, Epinephrine, can be bought on the open world market for about one dollar.  Appearing before congress, Mylan’s CEO, Heather Bresch, said that the price increase was not the fault of Mylan, but America’s health care system.

Bresch argued that a lack of transparency in the complex health care system -- with bigger cuts for everyone along the supply chain -- "incentivizes higher prices" in the industry. She pointed out that copays and deductibles are on the rise, too. (CNN, August 25, 2016)

As she passed off the buck of responsibility to “the system,” I honestly found her words hard to swallow since the 400 percent rise in the cost of a life-saving drug coincided with a 671% rise in HER compensation package.  During the same period of time, her compensation rose from $2,453,456 to $18,931,068. (Chicago Tribune, August 25, 2016)  I do not think there is a coincidence here.  While some families dealing with life threatening allergic reactions, were having to decide what they could cut from their budget so they could afford this potentially life-saving medication, she was personally profiting to the tune of $17,000,000.  I do not have trouble calling such profiteering evil.  It is done at the extreme expense of others, even possibly the expense of someone’s life. 

I believe one of the primary problems with the medical system in America is simple greed or as the author of I Timothy writes, “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.”  The greed of pharmaceutical and insurance companies, is destroying the idea that health and well-being is a basic human right in which all people deserve quality care.  Leaders of such companies lack a moral compass when they can accept millions of dollars in increases while people struggle to afford the medicines that they provide.  Last year, another pharmaceutical CEO, J. Michael Pearson of Valeant, said that the company’s primary responsibility was to the shareholders.  He did not mention those who might benefit from the use of his company’s drugs.  His concern was profit margin alone – not care for the sick (US Uncut, October 2015.)

Such unbridled greed has cost much damage in our nation.  Not only does it lead many families to have to make decisions between medicines and some of life’s other necessities such as food and clothing, it has also led to many families being virtually destroyed financially.  The number one cause of personal bankruptcies in America is medical expenses which accounts for about 62% of all bankruptcies.  And, 72% of such bankruptcies from medical expense are even filed by people who do have some type of medical insurance. (The Huffington Post, March 24, 2015).

There is much discussion in the current political debate about health care and most of it centers on the Affordable Care Act and the prospect of universal health care and the sky-rocketing cost of medical care.    I believe the church has an important role to play in this conversation.  We can speak out for those who live on the edges and who fall through the cracks when it comes to being humanely cared for.  We can also dare to speak about the greed which is driving too much of our current system, calling greed what it is – evil.  In addition, we can speak up about the social and moral responsibility companies and corporations need to have.  This, I believe, is our Christian responsibility.  To work for a more just and equitable world.  Quality health care is a right for all and not just a privilege for those who can afford it.

I am glad my daughter is well and I owe lot to all those who make her health possible.  I want to work for a world where we are not just the fortunate ones, but a world where everyone has the same kind of fortunes we have been given.