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EpiPen price hike has parents of kids with allergies scrambling

EpiPen — the portable device that can stop a potentially life-threatening allergic reaction — has gotten a lot more expensive.
/ Source: NBC News

The cost of saving your child's life has gotten a lot more expensive.

Parents getting ready for back-to-school season have another item to toss in the basket along with Trapper Keepers and boxes of pencils — and they're facing sticker shock at the latest price increase.

Doctors and patients say the Mylan pharmaceutical company has jacked up the prices for an EpiPen — the portable device that can stop a potentially life-threatening allergic reaction — from around $100 in 2008 to $500 and up today.

That's a hike of over 400 percent.

Now former pharmaceutical executive Martin Shkreli has weighed in, calling the Mylan company "vultures."

Connecticut Senator Richard Bluemnthal, who pushed for emergency epinephrine to be stocked in public schools, pledged to investigate the "shocking increase."

"Patients are calling and saying they can't afford it," said Dr. Douglas McMahon, an allergy specialist in Maplewood, Minnesota. "They're between a rock and a hard place."

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Frustrated by the rising cost of prescription drugs, health advocates hope sunlight and a dose of shame might discourage drugmakers from raising their prices too quickly or introducing new medications at prices that break the bank.Rich Pedroncelli / AP

Following a recall by Mylan's chief competitor last year, the company now enjoys a near monopoly. Because of aggressive marketing and branding campaigns, and lobbying for legislation that requires the product to be stocked in schools, they have a brand dominance equal to that of Kleenex, doctors say.

About the size of a fat marker, they are carried by many parents of kids with severe allergies wherever they go — ready to jam the gizmo into their child's thigh to deliver epinephrine and stop anaphylactic shock from a potentially fatal bee sting or bit of peanut.

And because they have a stated expiration date of one year, parents refill them annually, incurring an additional co-pay each time.

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Tracy Bush, a 42-year-old mom and food allergy consultant, never goes anywhere without two EpiPens on her. Her son, age 14, carries another. She began doing so after he was diagnosed with severe allergies as a 2-year-old.

For the past 10 years, she has watched the price she paid for her refills rise higher and higher with no discernible improvement to the device or medicine.

In 2008, Bush said the price was $145.99. In 2010, it was $220.99, then jumped to $649.99. This year her pre-insurance costs were $1,118.08.Despite the hikes, Bush was glad to have the device two years ago when her son had a bad reaction while eating some watermelon.

"He said it felt like a potato chip was caught in his throat. Then he got a look of terror on his face. His voice was totally different, it sounded like he had sucked helium. I was like 'Oh my goodness, I'm going to have to use an EpiPen,'" she said. "I will never forget the look that I saw."

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In a statement, Mylan said that the prices have "changed over time to better reflect important product features and the value the product provides," and that "we've made a significant investment to support the device over the past years."

The company also offers coupons on its website that can reduce costs. This year, for the first time, Bush was able to use those coupons and her "good" insurance plan to bring down her out-of-pocket costs to zero. But not everyone can do the same.

"When epinephrine only costs a few cents, but they're going up to $500, personally I don't think that's ethically responsible," said Dr. McMahon.

And he understands better than most what costs are involved: For the past few years he's been developing his own, smaller version of the EpiPen, and trying to get it approved by the FDA and bring it to market. He estimates that process costs about $1.5 million. In 2015, Mylan's profits from the sale of EpiPens rose to $1.2 billion.

McMahon says his device will retail for about $50.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the former presidential contender and a member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, told NBC News in a statement: "The drug industry's greed knows no bounds. There's no reason an EpiPen, which costs Mylan just a few dollars to make, should cost families more than $600. The only explanation for Mylan raising the price by six times since 2009 is that the company values profits more than the lives of millions of Americans."