business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kate McMahon

I consider myself a most fortunate EpiPen holder, for two reasons. First, I have never had to use the device since my initial life-threatening anaphylactic reaction to shellfish decades ago. Unlike nuts, dairy, eggs, wheat and bees, shellfish is easy to avoid.

Second, unlike so many of the estimated 15 million American children and adults who face that threat at every birthday party, lunch table or walk in the park, my health insurance actually covers the cost of my EpiPen with a co-pay of $57.

Which is why I am outraged by what is known on social media as #EpiGate, the unconscionable 400% increase in the cost of an EpiPen sold by pharmaceutical giant Mylan. When Mylan acquired the product in 2007, the list price for a twin-pack of EpiPens was $100. That price tag had skyrocketed to more than $600 when parents of allergic kids unleashed a firestorm on Facebook and Twitter last month.

For the uninitiated, an EpiPen is a plastic “pen-like” auto-injector that with a jab to the thigh immediately administers a dose of the drug epinephrine, which counteracts the potentially fatal allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis.

For an excellent, one-click understanding of life-threatening food allergies and the role of the EpiPen, I would encourage you to read the recent New York Times piece by 24-year-old Ali Jaffe titled “How 12 EpiPens Saved My Life.” You can read it here.

My daughters went to school with Ali and her three siblings, all great kids and all with serious food allergies. Fourth-grade teacher Maria Sette had three of the Jaffe siblings in her classroom, and was schooled in EpiPen protocol when her infant son Michael developed severe food allergies.

When she went to CVS to refill Michael’s EpiPen before he started kindergarten this year, she found that the cost was $637 with insurance, down to $337 with a coupon, Maria posted her outrage on Facebook. She was in good company, as thousands of other parents and consumers lit up social media condemning Mylan for price gouging. The EpiPen price debacle was soon front-page news and the subject of governmental scrutiny.

Mylan responded by offering its $300 coupon to qualified consumers and promising that a $300 generic version of the EpiPen would be available soon. Mylan CEO Heather Bresch faced the media and blamed the nation’s health care “crisis” for the escalated price of the product.

The trouble with that defense is that Bresch’s annual compensation has also increased from $2.5 million in 2007 to nearly $19 million in 2015, earning her the title of America’s “new pharmaceutical villain.” In fact, the Wall Street Journal this morning reports that Mylan "had the second-highest executive compensation among all US drug and biotech firms over the past five years, paying its top five managers a total of nearly $300 million ... The big pay packages are unusual because of Mylan NV’s relatively small size in the U.S. drug industry, where it is No. 11 by revenue and No. 16 by market capitalization."

In an interview with the New York Times, the jet-setting, 47--year-old  Bresch said her company struck a balance around the globe to “do good and do well” but remained focused on the bottom line. “I am running a business. I am a for-profit business. I am not hiding from that.”

No, she's not. But she really can't, because social media has allowed outraged consumers to train an unflattering spotlight on her company, policies and attitudes. Certainly, one of a CEO's primary responsibilities is to generate profits for a company's shareholders. However, it also can be argued that a CEO's broader responsibility is to see the bigger picture; more and more that picture includes things like social responsibility.

I think there are times when CEOs need to ask themselves if, under certain circumstances, there is such a thing as too much profit. Particularly when there are families struggling and making sacrifices just to make sure they can afford a life-saving EpiPen at home and in a lunch sack.

Ironically, the question is posed in a new parody/web browser game called EpiPen Tycoon. The introductory page instructs: “You are Heather Bresch … Your shareholders want results. Your customers want to not die of anaphylactic shock. It’s up to you to jack the price as high as you can.” The game forces players to engage in a balancing act. But the parents and children affected by the EpiPen controversy are not playing a game.

Perhaps Bresch and CEOs of her ilk (like, say, Martin Shkreli of Turing), ought to turn to another book for guidance. You know, the one that contains the following passage: “For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul?”

Comments? As always, send them to me at .
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