This piece was first published on the Bordas & Bordas legal blog in August, 2016]
In 2007, EpiPens cost about fifty bucks apiece. Then drug company giant Mylan bought the rights. Now they go for more than six hundred dollars a pair. They do not cost more because they work better. They cost more because Mylan spent millions on lobbying and marketing to create demand, eliminate competition, and obtain a monopoly position with a lifesaving drug. When they were ready, Mylan held the Epi-Pen like a gun to the heads of American children, and asked “well, what’s she worth to you?”
Because Americans love their children, the money came rolling in. A product that used to make two hundred million dollars a year now makes billions. It accounts for forty percent of Mylan’s profit. The money comes from people who can ill afford to pay so much for about one dollar’s worth of actual medicine, but the lethality of their children’s allergies leaves them no choice.
In 1955 Dr. Jonas Salk refused to patent the polio vaccine. He could have been a billionaire. But the idea of squeezing that money out of millions of sick children repelled him. Fifty years later, Mylan’s corporate bosses read articles like Kelly Beatty’s, describing the terror she feels for her children’s lives, and CEO Heather Bresch responds by saying “I am a for-profit business.”
America has changed since Salk’s day.
It seems like every day there’s a new book or an article on the crisis in the white working class. J.D. Vance’s impressive Hillbilly Elegy is the latest and greatest example. Full of ideas like job training, drug treatment, charter schools, a better safety net, more churchgoing, you name it. But books like that are not for the white working class. They are written by and for the white wealthy class. They are packed what the white wealthy class wants to hear about the problems of the white working class. They sell briskly.
Here’s an idea you won’t find in those books: how about the white wealthy class stops wringing every dollar it can out of the white working class while giving as little as possible in return? How about drug companies quit holding working class children for ransom over life-saving drugs? How about banks quit chiseling money out of low income families with fees that have nothing to do with service? It'd be a start.
The white wealthy class devoured and adored Hillbilly Elegy for a familiar reason — it blames everyone and everything but them for what’s happened to America’s middle class. Wealthy people are comforted by the idea that working people just quit trying hard like they used to, quit going to church like they’re supposed to, quit staying married like they should have, and got on drugs. It’s a comforting illusion for the well-to-do.
In West Virginia we know for a fact that drug companies ship pills engineered to be addictive by the miracles of modern science to our poorest communities in numbers exceeding what medical need could justify by orders of magnitude. People crippled by the back-breaking work of mineral extraction, communities ground nearly into dust by the coal companies, are now farmed by the drug companies for the last of what money or benefits they can lay their hands on. Then they die.
When drug companies ship millions upon millions of opioid pills to West Virginia they know that high school girls there will end up prostituting themselves to get some of them. They ship them anyway. They are “a for-profit business,” you see. Nothing is needed to salve their consciences except spreadsheets showing rising profits.
Before someone says that Mylan needs $600 EpiPens to pay it back for developing the drugs, check the facts. Mylan manufactures generics. It didn’t invent the EpiPen. What Mylan “created” was the lobbying and marketing that put itself in a position to gouge for EpiPens. Forbes called it “savvy branding.
For over thirty years, the white wealthy class has worked the referees and fixed the games, so that every bit of America’s staggering growth in productivity has gone to them. Money in this country defies gravity, never trickling down but instead flooding up in ever greater amounts. Awash in it, the white wealthy class tells its victims to go to church and quit taking drugs without ever acknowledging that it is bleeding working people of the money they earn, systematically impoverishing them while it lectures them about thrift.
Astonishingly, the white wealthy class returns not even gratitude in exchange for a 100% share of the nation’s income growth. Instead the CEOs pulling down eight and nine-figure salaries feel put upon when they are forced to address the disasters they cause. Remember Tony Hayward, CEO of BP during Deepwater Horizon? He said “I want my life back” as his company simultaneously crushed the economy, and the environment, of an entire region. He walked away with a $17,000,000 pension.
Gary Southern, CEO of “Freedom Industries,” sipped bottled water and complained about “an extremely long day,” after leaving 300,000 people without usable water during the Charleston Water Crisis. And now along comes Bresch, CEO of a company holding children hostage to her $18,000,000 annual salary, to say “no one is more frustrated about this than me.” The white wealthy class is so blind she probably believes that.
But a lot of people are more frustrated than the CEOs that are skinning this country six ways from Sunday. So many people work hard, but can’t afford the basics. Everything that comes their way is stripped away by lobbying, marketing, monopolies, and raw corporate power. Nothing, not even the lives of their children, is off the table as the privileged class preserves and expands its wealth and power.
The media acts like Mylan has a PR problem -- that's rock bottom for the white wealthy class. But the company's actions should be criminal. Nothing will change for the white working class until they are treated that way.