PITTSFIELD >> The rising price of the allergy medication known as EpiPen has prompted outrage nationwide, and some local emergency services providers are feeling the pinch — or are expecting to.
"As paramedics, we're required to carry it," said Brian Andrews, the owner/operator of Pittsfield-based County Ambulance. "But it's used rarely and only replaced when it's out of date."
That replacement cost is going up, though, making carrying the medication prohibitively expensive. The drug company Mylar has raised the price of the drug by almost 500 percent in the past nine years. The cost of a single dose was $57 in 2007; a packet of two now costs $600.
EpiPen is a dosage of adrenaline delivered to the body through intramuscular injection. The injection avoids directly tapping into a vein, which can lead to death due to the heart beating too fast to pump blood. The EpiPen is a spring-loaded needle that shoots directly into a muscle and distributes the adrenaline to the body that way.
The drug itself, epinephrine, is an adrenaline that brings people out of the anaphylactic shock caused by severe allergies to bees, nuts and other substances. It's a seldom used but vital part of emergency services locally and nationally.
That makes the price increase a difficult burden to bear.
"It's a big hit to EMS," Andrews said.
Replacing the drug for the County Ambulance fleet is already expensive at $3,000 to $4,000. With the new prices, Andrews doesn't know how high that number will go.
Tochi Ubani, the head of Berkshire Community College's Nursing Program, said he sees the issue in broader, more philosophical terms.
"When issues like this become news, the country reacts," he said. "But reacting to just one product is very reactionary and not productive."
Ubani said he believes there should be clearer and stricter regulations on how drug companies profit off of life-saving medication. In his view, the EpiPen controversy is symptomatic of a broader problem in how the government makes medication available.
Andrews agreed, saying that he hoped the government could rein in the prices and provide some relief to consumers.
"It's like Narcan," he said, referring to the opioid overdose treatment now carried by many health professionals. "Once use of the drug went up, prices skyrocketed. It's a problem."
Not everyone is seeing the effects of the price increase, though. Great Barrington Fire Chief Charles Burger said his department's EpiPen supply is provided by Fairview Hospital's pharmacy. The fire department doesn't see the cost, he said.
But Burger conceded that the cost of the drug for individual consumers could result in deaths if consumers are not purchasing the drug due to the price.
"Potentially, that is a possibility," Burger said. "I have not seen it yet at this point."
Michael Leary, spokesman for Berkshire Health Systems, said the higher cost had not affected individual consumers in a substantial way yet.
"The higher cost hasn't trickled down to the public at this time," he said.
But for local emergency services, the cost is provoking conversations and concerns. Andrews worried that the prices won't be controlled enough to make a difference for independent ambulance companies like his and that insurance premiums could rise for individuals.
"It's a topic of discussion for emergency services all over the state," he said. "Not just here."