Over the last several months the heat around #EpiGate has been building. Mylan, the pharmaceutical company that owns the EpiPen emergency allergy treatment, has had to defend its price increases on the life-saving drug, which means the company’s crisis communications team has been spending a lot of time in the war room.
Since 2004, the price of a pack of two EpiPens has risen from $100 to more than $600 today — a price that poses a significant barrier for patients whose insurance won’t cover the treatment. This issue is compounded by the fact that there are very few alternate solutions for patients. Mylan controls nearly 90 percent of the market for epinephrine injectors. Some patients have resorted to asking physicians to fill syringes with epinephrine and teach them how to administer them without the EpiPen technology. This alternative only costs around $20, adding further fuel to the fire around why EpiPens are so expensive.
At the same time that the cost of the EpiPen rose, so did Mylan CEO Heather Bresch’s salary — from $2.4 million in 2007 when Mylan acquired the EpiPen to nearly $19 million in 2015 — further adding to the skepticism around EpiPen pricing.
While the price of EpiPens has steadily risen over the past decade, this year finally shed light on the issue in a big way:
- In June, a petition was started to “stop EpiPen price gouging” and send letters to Congress. To date, more than 144,500 letters have been sent via the petition.
- July, August and September saw a huge increase in the volume of news coverage and social media mentions of the issue — with overwhelmingly negative sentiment.
- Sarah Jessica Parker, a long-time advocate for EpiPens, who needs EpiPens for her son and has lent her voice to awareness campaigns, announced that she ended her relationship with Mylan.
- Hillary Clinton weighed in saying that she would fine companies who increase their drug prices inappropriately.
- Even Heather Bresch’s father, Sen. Joe Manchin, added his two cents noting that he was concerned about “skyrocketing prices of prescription drugs.”
Mylan’s communications team reacted quickly. Heather Bresch participated in interviews. When she didn’t, statements were offered to press. Talking points were consistent throughout all messaging released to the public. The top of Mylan’s home page links directly to a landing page where the public (and media) can learn more about the issue and track news from the organization. Social media postings have linked to issued news releases, but have not engaged with negative posts and have not offered excuses.
Mylan took its response a step further by outlining a plan to resolve concerns about the price of EpiPens, including:
- Launching a generic version of the branded product, identical in device functionality and drug formulation, at half the price in the next several weeks, pending completion of labeling revisions.
- Offering a savings card for up to $300 for patients in health plans who face higher out-of-pocket costs.
- Doubling eligibility for Mylan’s patient assistance program to 400 percent of the federal poverty level.
- Opening a new pathway, so patients can order EpiPens directly from the company to reduce their costs.
Mylan also reminded the public of its commitment to patients by emphasizing that it will continue its EpiPen4Schools program, which provides free EpiPens and educational resources to more than 65,000 schools in the U.S.
What is Mylan not doing and saying?
- Mylan has been careful not to include any apologies in their messaging. This is intentional as including an apology would indicate that they did something wrong.
- The company has not given any indication that it is considering changing the current price of EpiPens — and have given no indication of whether or not it may raise the price of EpiPens further.
Has the strategy been effective? Yes and no. Immediately putting forward a plan to remedy concerns showed that Mylan is looking for solutions for patients and is willing to take action to back up its words. But people have still been poking holes in the messaging, and it has not gone unnoticed that the company is retaining the wholesale price of the drug at $600. Media coverage and social media conversations about #EpiGate are still primarily negative. However, they could be much worse if Mylan had not released its action plan for addressing concerns.
This crisis is nowhere near over. Heather Bresch recently, on Sept. 21, testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and came against some strong criticism and questions she was not able to answer. Mylan has another few days to provide additional documentation required by the committee. At the same time, the Wall Street Journal is reporting that Heather Bresch provided inaccurate pre-tax profit numbers to Congress, and regulators are pointing out that Mylan incorrectly classified EpiPens for Medicaid rebates, to the company’s benefit.
In the next few months we will see how this shakes out for Mylan. In the meantime, how do you think Mylan is handling this crisis from a communications perspective? Would you handle it differently? Let me know in the comments!