In August 2016, pharmaceutical company Mylan became the latest health company to fall under fire for price gouging.
Over the course of seven years, they'd carefully managed to inflate the list price of EpiPen by nearly 500%, along with price-hikes on more than 30 other products too. That's pretty absurd, considering that some people, including fellow pharmaceutical-makers, say EpiPen ingredients are inexpensive and the pen can cost less than $20 to make. Plus, EpiPen already accounts for 40% of Mylan's operating profits.
At the height of this debacle, Mylan CEO Heather Bresch spoke with CNBC to offer insights on the inner workings of the pharmaceutical industry. And her answers actually revealed a lot about health care in America.
1. "This isn't an EpiPen issue. This isn't a Mylan issue. This is a health care issue," she said, when asked about government regulations.
There's a whole lot of shady business going on in the health care industry right now, and it's not limited to Mylan.
There was the Turing Pharmaceutical's infamous 5,000% overnight price hike on Daraprim in December 2015, and KV Pharmaceuticals cornered the market on a drug to help prevent premature births and then slapped a markup on it of more than 1,000%. More recently, pharma company Valeant jacked up the price of some generic heart medications it had acquired by up to seven-fold or more.
2. When an anchor pointed out the bad headlines on Mylan, she responded, "We have given out 700,000 free EpiPens. We stocked 65,000 public schools in this country. ... We're now passing legislation, 30 states to have them in restaurants, hotels."
She also said, "We want everyone who needs an EpiPen to have one."
On the surface level, this is good, right? But it starts to get messy when you look a little closer.
Mylan has already spent millions of dollars in lobbying under the auspices of improving education and awareness about anaphylactic shock. As a result, they've managed to get federal guidelines rewritten to make EpiPens available to anyone, instead of just those with dangerous allergies, and have pushed to require schools and soon also restaurants and hotels to carry the treatment.
For those at risk for deathly allergies, this increased presence of EpiPen is certainly a good thing.
But it's even better for Mylan, which not only gets to increase its customer base, but also receives a generous tax break for all of those EpiPen donations. Combined with their recent corporate move to the Netherlands, this means that Mylan now pays a distinctly low U.S. federal tax rate.
And that's with you buying EpiPens at a 500% markup.
3. So how do you fix the problem? Bresch's advice was this: "Patients need to get engaged in their health care. [...] There's no transparency, there's no clarity, and no one knows what anything costs."
She went on to say, "Anytime you're shopping for anything, you know what that product is going to cost when you walk up to the counter. Only in health care ... do you walk up to that pharmacy counter, you could have paid $25 yesterday and you're paying $600, $1,000, $2,000."
Health care costs are muddled, confusing, and seem to change arbitrarily. Even with the regulations that have been put in place by the Affordable Care Act, the U.S. health care system still feels like a mysterious labyrinth where a wrong turn can lead you into either a gold mine or a terrifying confrontation with a surly minotaur.
And if you do have the time, energy, and brain space required to engage more closely with your health care? You're often straddled with a choice between no transparency or being inundated with too much confusing information to make an informed decision.
Yes, the U.S. health care system is still messed up. But the answer to the problem is not to exploit the people who are paying out of pocket.
The problem here isn't consumers or Obamacare or the distribution supply. It's greed. And this time around, Mylan is responsible for the mess.
So what can we, the consumers, do about it? Maybe it's time we listened to Bresch and really got informed and engaged with our health care — by refusing to buy from companies like Mylan whenever there's an option. Then we can reach out to our congresspeople and tell 'em to get their act together.
It might not sound like much, but it's a start.