WASHINGTON -- In his opening remarks at the Full House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing on the heroin epidemic, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) slammed the pharmaceutical company that makes the overdose antidote naloxone for profiting off the crisis.
“We can no longer allow drug companies to keep ripping off the taxpayers for life-saving medications,” Cummings said. “Cities all around the country have recognized the need to equip their first responders, police officers and public health officials with naloxone -- a drug that can reverse opioid overdoses in a matter of minutes.”
Because of those life-saving properties, the medication has become essential in the public health response to the rise in overdose deaths. State after state -- including places like Kentucky and New York -- have passed laws making naloxone available without a prescription. Chains such as Kroger and CVS recently announced that they would be selling it essentially as an over-the-counter medication.
Cummings said Amphastar Pharmaceuticals Inc., which makes naloxone, has jacked up prices for the antidote as demand has increased. Evidenced-based public policy, he said, has been “undermined by corporate greed.”
“As more first responders began using this drug, the company that makes it, Amphastar, began to increase its prices by staggering amounts,” Cummings said. “In May 2014, a 10-dose pack cost the Baltimore City Health Department roughly $190. Guess what? Today, it costs more than $400 for a life-saving drug.”
In October, Dr. Leana Wen, Baltimore’s health commissioner, issued a blanket naloxone prescription for all 620,000 residents; Baltimore has more than 20,000 active heroin users. “We have to save lives," she told the House committee. “Naloxone should be part of everyone’s medicine cabinet.”
Amphastar has certainly profited off of this demand. In press releases, the company reports millions in earnings from naloxone sales. In the last quarter ending on Dec. 31, 2015, the company had net revenues of nearly $77 million, “an increase of 38 percent from $55.9 million for the fourth quarter of 2014.” One reason they cite: naloxone sales.
Other finished pharmaceutical product revenues were $46.2 million for the fourth quarter, an increase of 66% compared to $27.9 million for the fourth quarter of 2014, primarily due to an increase in sales of naloxone to $10.7 million from $7.6 million, as a result of increased unit volumes at higher average prices.
In the previous quarter, Amphaster reported similar profits due to sales of the overdose antidote. Again, sales shot up from from $3.7 million in naloxone sales during the previous year's third quarter to $10.5 million in sales “as a result of increased unit volumes at higher average prices.”
Amphaster did not return a request for comment.
The company has agreed to rebates with public entities in Ohio and New York following complaints of price increases. Cummings said the company hasn't adequately responded to a document request he made last May over the price increases.
When asked about Cummings’ complaint, Michael Botticelli, the director of the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy, admitted it was an issue. “We are tremendously disserved by the dramatic increase,” he said during a conference call this afternoon with reporters.
Botticelli stressed that his office and other federal agencies were working to address the issue through federal grants for naloxone purchases. He added that the Food and Drug Administration recently approved a nasal-spray version of naloxone as way to spur competition among pharmaceutical companies.
Amphastar need not be worried about sluggish sales.
On the conference call, Dr. Tom Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that the epidemic is “one of the very few problems that is getting worse.”