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Lawmakers are imploring Mylan Pharmaceutical, the manufacturer of EpiPens, to scale back price increases that have seen the cost of the life-saving emergency allergy treatment swell from $100 to $600 per package, according to published reports.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., wrote a letter to Mylan CEO Heather Bresch saying that he was "shocked and dismayed" to learn that the price of EpiPens has risen by several hundred percent since 2009 "even though [the product] has not been improved upon in any obvious or significant way," Consumer Affairs reported.
The EpiPen contains about $1 worth of epinephrine, but it now costs $600 or more for a package of two. In 2007, the EpiPen cost $57.
The treatments are used to quickly treat the severe allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis, which can include swelling of the tongue or throat, shortness of breath and a rash, according to USA Today.
In a previous statement, Mylan said the EpiPen's price "has changed over time to better reflect important product features and the value the product provides," adding, "We've made a significant investment to support the device."
Blumenthal was one of three senators who wrote letters demanding answers from Mylan, and the controversy has captured the attention of White House hopeful Hillary Clinton. On her Facebook page Wednesday, the Democrat wrote, "It's just the latest troubling example of a company taking advantage of its consumers.
"I believe that our pharmaceutical and biotech industries can be an incredible source of American innovation, giving us revolutionary treatments for debilitating diseases," she said. "But it's wrong when drug companies put profits ahead of patients, raising prices without justifying the value behind them."
Clinton said that pharmaceutical manufacturers should be required to explain significant price increases, and prove that any additional costs are linked to additional patient benefits and better value. She also called on Mylan to reduce the price.
Mylan did have one defender, however: former Turing Pharmaceuticals CEO Martin Shkreli.
"I think important medicine should be expensive because they're valuable," he's quoted as saying in CBS News, adding the EpiPen is a "bargain."
Underlying reasons for the price increase -- and for high drug prices in the U.S. generally -- may be found in a study published Tuesday by the Journal of the American Medical Association. The study's authors contend that prescription drugs are priced in the United States primarily on the basis of what the market will bear, rather than research and development costs.
Pharmaceutical companies that are the first to develop a particular drug have exclusive rights on it for a period of time before they face competition from less expensive alternatives, the authors said, which means they can set their own prices, or hike prices if they anticipate losing money to the competition. In some cases, those companies will make small changes to the drug in order to retain exclusive rights after the original patent expires.
And the U.S. government has very little control when it comes to how drug prices are set, especially when they're under market exclusivity, the authors said. In other nations, governments evaluate the cost-effectiveness of drugs and set maximum prices.
Fueling the ire over EpiPen costs is the fact that there are few available alternatives. Business Insider reports that Auvi-Q, an EpiPen competitor, has been recalled since October, while allergy treatment Adrenaclick costs about $400 without insurance, though coupons for it are available.
Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration has not yet green-lighted generic alternatives to EpiPen.
CBS news reported that EpiPen accounted for 87 percent of all epinephrine prescriptions pharmacies filled last year.