The Artificial Epipen Emergency

Big news that isn’t news these days is the shortage of epipens. People whose epipens are expiring can’t get new ones. The supplier just can’t get them. This is an echo of the big kerfuffle in the States recently at the price gouging. $400 a pen. Crossing the border to Canada to buy them, etc. People suddenly (suddenly? Give me a break!) realizing that free enterprise and public health don’t make quiet bedfellows.

Pundits in Canada are coming up with all sorts of creative ideas how to make it easier/cheaper/more efficient to have enough epipens in the right places (home, school, etc.) when the supply is low and prices are high. Most of the ideas involve government and social organizations spending more in time, personnel and money.

Barking up the Wrong Tree

For once, the Americans have it right. In a free enterprise system, when you have a shortage, you look to the supplier, because that’s where the profit is being made. Follow the money. If the government has to pay more than the service is worth, then government is subsidizing the company making the money. Sorry, I mean providing the service. Don’t I?

Keep in mind that a $400 Epipen costs around $5 to make, and delivers $1 worth of the drug.

But the problems with the Epipen are not simple economics. They’re historical, and the people charged with fixing these problems have no motivation to do so.

You see, in our throwaway society, it seemed a good idea all those years ago to mass-produce Epipens. Then everyone could buy them, use them and throw them away. If one got past its date, you just threw it away and bought another one. At $10 or $15 each, I suppose that made economic, if not ecological sense.

But now we have a shortage. For some reason, producers can’t make enough of these disposables. Oh, dear, whatever can we do?

Well, maybe the throwaway pen is the wrong way to go. Maybe we should be able to go to the drug store and get our epipens recharged for a reasonable fee. But who wants that to happen? Not the epipen producers, that’s for sure. So is it gonna happen? Fat chance.

The Other Shoe Drops

The second half of this equation is our legal system with its stress on liability, especially in the medical field. Producers of medicines don’t dare be caught selling anything substandard in any way. And woe betide them if one of their products fades in effectiveness with time. So they set their “use before” date unrealistically early to keep their clients perfectly safe. How community-minded of them.

But now there is a shortage. Oh, dear, whatever…(see refrain above).

Well, the shelf life of an Epipen is one year. But a doctor I heard interviewed on CBC last week suggested that an Epipen two years past its “use before” date still has 90% of its medical potency left. That, of course, is a random number you are hearing third hand, so don’t stake your life on it, but it gives an idea of the scope of the scam.

This is a classic example of why government needs to interfere with medical services. If the federal government were to make a contract with a supplier to buy a million or so epipens a year, as long as the price was reasonable, I’m sure action would follow. I’m not sure why someone else isn’t taking a share of this goldmine and undercutting Mylan’s 91% of the global market and 96% of American sales. Isn’t that what antitrust legislation is for?

The Bottom Line

There should be enough epipens available at a reasonable price if the market were to operate freely. If not, government needs to step in.

Oh, booga-booga. Not government regulation again! Free enterprise is the way to go, right? Well, this is a challenge for free enterprise. Like any other economic system, if your way of organizing doesn’t cut the mustard, then you’re out of here. If independent business can’t provide a reliable supply of an essential service at a decent price, then they lose the opportunity to provide it.

Time to fish or cut bait, boys and girls. If you can’t provide the medicine we need, we’ll make our own through a government program. And it will be all your fault.


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