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Naloxone Price Hikes Spark Congressional Interest

For years, the cost of the overdose reversal drug Naloxone, often called by its brand name Narcan, has been relatively low, a few dollars a vial. Recently, prices have soared. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and other members of congress are demanding to know why.

Naloxone is made by several manufacturers but that hasn’t kept a lid on pricing. For example: one auto-inject version of the drug has gone from $575 for two-doses to more than $3,500. Even a generic version used by hospitals went from $1.84 a vial to $31.66 a vial last year. Collins says she is baffled at the price hikes.

“There are five versions of this drug,” says Collins, “And usually when you see that kind of competition in the generic market, you don’t see these out of control, unwarranted price increases.”

As chair of the Senate Aging Committee, Collins has been investigating prices for specialty drugs where there are no generic competitors. She says she will be writing the five companies to ask them to explain their increases.

First District Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) says, “I think that the pharmaceutical manufacturers take advantage of people in need. The idea that this has been around since 1971 and the prices have gone up 17 times recently now because of high demand – it’s got to be about greed.”

Generic drug makers cannot sell their products directly to first responders or non-medical personnel, and they say that the price hikes are the result of third parties repackaging the drugs for sale.

Pingree says that whatever is causing the increases, Congress should take action to stop the unwarranted increases. “We have become very conscious that we have an opioid epidemic going on in our country that this drug can save lives and however we need to do it, we should find out what the root of the problem is and step in and make sure it is affordable and very available.”

Pingree says access to the drug is so important that Congress should consider setting up a process to negotiate purchase of the drug on behalf of all the users across the country. She says that approach has worked well for the Veterans Administration in holding down costs, and is routine in many other countries.

Sen. Collins says the price spike raises serious concerns about recently passed legislation to authorize additional federal funding for Naloxone purchases by first responders.

“That raises real concerns about the strategy to equip first responders with Naloxone so that they can respond to overdoses and save lives,” Collins said.

Some Maine agencies are already benefiting from federal grant programs like the Rural Opioid Overdose Reversal program that has allowed kits to be purchased for distribution in Bangor and Ellsworth by the non-profit Health Equity Alliance. That program has also provided funds for purchasing the drug and training for Maine’s Indian tribes. Grants would be expanded under the Senate version of legislation aimed at addressing the drug crisis, but Collins and Pingree are worried the increased cost of Naloxone will make it less effective.

Journalist Mal Leary spearheads Maine Public's news coverage of politics and government and is based at the State House.