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Price Of Drug That Saves Overdose Victims Soaring Out Of Reach

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) -- If you or a loved one overdoses, there is a drug that can save your life -- but it comes at an increasing cost. Kent Killen knows first-hand it's a drug that works miracles.

"Coming back to life -- literally -- from not breathing and no heartbeat," said Kent.

The 26-year-old and an ex-girlfriend were using opioid drugs, when she overdosed. He gave her an emergency antidote and that brought her back from the brink of death. "It was really scary," said Kent.

The drug is naloxone. If it is given in time, it reverses an overdose.

Kent is now a recovering addict, but in case he relapses, his mom Debora is prepared. She keeps a syringe of naloxone nearby.

"In my house, in my car close to me at all times," said Mrs. Killeen.

Prescription opioids are fueling the worst drug addiction epidemic in U.S. History.

"Because we have so many Americans now addicted to opioids, we are experiencing record high levels of overdose deaths, " said Addiction Specialist Dr. Andrew Kolodny.

The drug was patented in 1961, and then approved by the FDA in 1971. In 1983, the drug went off patent, and several manufacturers began to make a generic form.

In recent years, the FDA fast tracked 2 new formulations with branded name. Public health experts told KPIX News how these newest formulations are the easiest to use for individuals who have no medical training."

It was used primarily only by medical professionals. But with the current opioid addiction epidemic, there's been a push by both federal and state agencies to get this life-saving drug into the hands of drug users, as well as their family and friends.

In California, you can now buy the drug in pharmacies with or without a prescription.

And medical doctors are encouraged to prescribe it to patients who use opioid painkillers for chronic pain.

But as the push to distribute naloxone grows, so too has its price.

"That just makes me so angry to hear that because it's such an old medication, it's a generic medication," complained UCSF Toxicologist and Emergency Medicine Specialist Dr. Patil Armenian.

Public health doctors informed KPIX News that decades ago, for medical professionals, a shot cost anywhere from twenty cents to a dollar.

But a new report published in New England Journal of Medicine details how the average wholesale prices of some naloxone products recently jumped.

The researchers discovered how 1 injectable, that's used as a nasal spray, saw a price increase of 95%

They also noted that a multi-dose vial went up by 129%
"The massive increase in price in this medication is scandalous," remarked CPMC St. Luke's Hospital Emergency Room Specialist Dr. Hallam Gugelmann.

But the most dramatic increase is with a new, high tech talking easy-to-use auto-injector called Evzio.

The report found that In 2014, a 2-pack of the auto-injectors listed at $690. Today, according to the report, the 2-pack is priced at $4.500: a 550% increase.

Dr. Gugelmann sees these price increases as gouging.

"It is profiting off of an epidemic and it's profiting off of other people's misery," said Dr. Gugelmann.

Other medical doctors are resigned. "These kinds of prices are pretty inaccessible for programs that are purchasing a drug to give it away," remarked Dr. Phillip Coffin.

Dr. Coffin is the Director of Substance Use Research in the Center for Public Health Research at the San Francisco Department of Public Health.

He explained how the City buys and distributes naloxone for free.

But with the drug's rising prices, he said he can't afford to budget for the newer, easier-to-use products, like Evzio.

"It would be nice if it could be available to everybody," said Dr. Coffin.

The situation is impacting the State of California and taxpayers.

Since 2014, the average Medi-Cal reimbursement for naloxone without Evzio jumped 78%. For Evzio alone, the average Medi-cal reimbursement amount jumped 580%.

Naloxone manufacturers said they offer discounts, grants, coupons, and rebates that make their products more affordable.

Most patients with insurance only have a copay.

Evzio says the commercially insured or the uninsured, may pay zero out-of-pocket costs. In a statement, Mark Herzog, VP of Corporate Affairs for Kaleo, the maker of Evzio, explained that the company increased the list price for the auto-injector in order to cover the cost of their patient access program.

Even so, experts warn higher priced drugs impact everyone - whether or not you use them. John Rother is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the National Coalition on Health care.

"Our premiums are going to go up, our taxes are going to go up to pay for Medicare and other programs so this is not a trivial thing," said Rother.

As for Kent, he obtained naloxone at a public health clinic for free.

Even so, Kent's mother, she worries.

"It hurts me to think that every time we find something good that works it has to stop working because of money," signed Debora.

The makers of Evzio said they have donated more than 200,000 kits to public health doctors, emergency responders, among others.

Even so, last week, 30 U.S. Senators wrote a letter to Kaleo, asking them to explain why it rose the price of their naloxone product.

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