Amid growing concerns over opioid abuse and addiction, two US senators are asking drugmakers to explain their pricing for the opioid overdose drug, naloxone. The overdose antidote was first approved decades ago to treat patients who have taken an excess of opioid drugs, including heroin.
Despite calls from public officials to make opioid overdose treatment more affordable, the cost of treatment continues to increase. The number of overdose-related deaths has also risen over the past few years, with over 27,000 incidents recorded in 2014 in the US alone.
The two concerned senators – Maine Republican Susan Collins and Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri and chair of the Senate Special Committee on Aging – sent an identical letter to five pharmaceutical companies regarding recent price changes of the opioid antidote. According to the letters, the senators are concerned that increased prices for naloxone “may be limiting access for emergency responders and public health departments.”
McCaskill and Collins are not newcomers to the drug pricing debate. Both senators participated in highly-publicized hearings whereby representatives from Valeant Pharmaceuticals and Turing Pharmaceuticals – including then Turing CEO, Martin Shkreli – were questioned on their pharmaceutical pricing practices.
Naloxone is the senators’ newest target because of its effectiveness at limiting or even reversing the damaging effects of an overdose of prescription opioids or heroine on the brain. One of the main supplier of naloxone to hospitals, police departments and addiction recovery groups, Amphastar Pharmaceuticals, has been contacted regarding recent price hikes for the drug. In 2014, the company increased the list price of its 10-pack, pre-filled, 2-milliliter syringes from $120 to $330.
“It becomes critical in the field for a cop, a paramedic, or EMT worker,” said Dr. Lewis Nelson, an emergency medicine specialist at the New York University Langone Medical Center. “You could watch someone die without it.”
The price increase prompted Bernie Sanders and Representative Elijah Cummings to demand pricing information from Amphastar. In response, the company offered the opioid overdose medication to select states at a reduced price.
“One concern is that money for naloxone is coming out of the same pot as money for treatment and prevention,” said Alison Knopf, editor of Alcoholism & Drug Abuse Weekly. “The costlier it is, the less money for treatment and prevention.”