SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
You may remember Martin Shkreli, the pharmaceutical executive who increased the cost of a lifesaving HIV drug by 5,000 percent, or the Mylan company, which hiked the price of their EpiPen injector, which can save the lives of those with severe allergies. Now there's a company in Virginia, Kaleo, that's following suit. They produce an injector that provides the naloxone antidote for opioid overdoses. A twin pack of their device, Evzio, has risen in price from $690 to four and a half thousand dollars. Shefali Luthra is a reporter with Kaiser Health News, and she's written about the company. Thanks so much for joining us.
SHEFALI LUTHRA: Thanks for having me.
SIMON: Let's start with the product. What does it do?
LUTHRA: Sure. So it's a talking auto-injector of sorts. So think of like your EpiPen, but this one talks to you. And instead of fixing allergies, it's for if you've overdosed on heroin or heavy duty opioid painkillers, like Percocet or Oxycontin, which has actually become a very pressing public health problem. Nationally, the CDC estimates that maybe more than 33,000 people died of overdosing on these drugs in 2015. So a layperson with no medical experience whatsoever can pick it up. It'll tell them exactly how to inject a person so that they don't go from overdosing the drug into dying.
SIMON: It can save a human life.
LUTHRA: More or less. Yeah.
SIMON: You've been kind enough to provide us with one - or a demo, right? All right. So I'm going - I'm going to take off the top.
(SOUNDBITE OF EVZIO RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: To inject, place black end against outer thigh, then press firmly and hold in place for five seconds. Five, four, three, two, one.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Injection complete.
SIMON: So it's not just an injection. It's pretty clear instructions that should be lucid for anyone to know how to save their life - their own life, if need be.
LUTHRA: Yeah, the idea is it's very user friendly.
SIMON: So why the huge price increase? What's the company say?
LUTHRA: So they say it's kind of a moot point. Kaleo donates a decent number of these devices to first responder-type groups, police departments, public health and the anti-opiate-overdose community-based organizations. They also have a no-copay program, so if you have private insurance, you can get a coupon, and you won't see any actual cost when you're getting the device. That said, a lot of analysts argue that this isn't really sufficient. For instance, the donation program was exhausted last July for the entirety of the year. Meanwhile, consumers may not see a copay when they are getting a drug, but their premiums will probably end up increasing because their insurance company does have to foot a larger bill.
SIMON: If you took someone to an emergency room to have his or her life saved, you wouldn't blink if the bill was four and a half thousand dollars. Doesn't this do the same thing?
LUTHRA: Sure. I think what's troubling to some critics of this is that it's the exact same device that it was a couple of years ago. And yet, without any change other than an increased demand and more publicity for this epidemic, the price has gone up so dramatically.
SIMON: So what seems to be the beauty and perhaps expensive part of this is the recorded instructions?
SIMON: Yeah. There are ways of getting naloxone into your - into somebody that are a lot cheaper?
LUTHRA: Sure. So in Vermont, actually, which has been particularly hard hit by heroin, the health department is trying to distribute naloxone to family, friends, first responders around the state. And they haven't even looked at the Evzio as an option because it's just too expensive. So they got this nasal spray, Narcan, and they've been giving that around instead.
SIMON: And that works? So why's this - yeah.
LUTHRA: So why the controversy? It's unclear how user friendly Narcan is compared to this. I mean, this one, as you just saw, talked to you. It's very intuitive. And one of the big efforts by the government and by doctors is to make it that giving naloxone is as easy as pulling the fire alarm - that anyone can do it. A lot of coffee shops, cafes, fast food restaurants, grocery stores in neighborhoods where opiate overdose is common are also trying to stock up. And your cashier might not know how to give an injection, but they can listen to that device just like you or I did.
SIMON: Shefali Luthra from Kaiser Health News. Thanks so much for being with us.
LUTHRA: Thanks for having me.
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