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As Congress calls for an investigation into the price hikes of EpiPen, Jean Ross of National Nurses United says only a single-payer healthcare system will reign in corporate greed that puts lives at risk

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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN: Congress is calling for an investigation into dramatic price increases for EpiPens: drug-filled injectable devices used by people to counter potentially deadly allergic reactions. The price of a pack of two EpiPens has gone from $100 in 2008 to over $500 this year. Mylan acquired the product in 2007. An EpiPen injects a pre-measured dose of epinephrine. Lawmakers have urged the Federal Trade Commission on Monday to investigate the price increases. Now joining us to discuss this is Jean Ross. She’s a registered nurse for over 40 years in Minnesota, and also co-president of National Nurses United. Thanks so much for joining us again. JEAN ROSS: Glad to be here. NOOR: Mylan did not immediately respond for a comment, but they noted in an email that nearly 80 percent of people with commercial insurance who use a savings card can get the medicine for free. So is this really that big a deal, like some people are making it out to be? ROSS: Well, it is when you consider the fact that it’s pretty much extortion for people who need medications like this to keep themselves alive, especially in a situation such as this with an EpiPen, because at the time you need the medication right there, right now. Is it okay? No. I mean, it [throws] the medical system that we’ve got right now, it’s not really a healthcare system, what we’ve got, being profit-based and [inaud.]. It makes people sit up and take notice and say people in general, the population, cannot continue to have life-saving medications because they cost too much money. So it sets up this system where the sky is the limit, the costs go higher and higher and higher, and then people, sadly, listen to arguments like that, like we can’t possibly have money for medications like this. It isn’t that the drugs cost that much. It isn’t research and development like the drug companies always tell us. It’s simply a matter of greed. NOOR: Well, speaking of profits, and perhaps greed, while these prices have increased, the CEO of Mylan, Heather Bresch, has gotten nearly 700 percent in raises over these past years. Talk more about–talk more about that. ROSS: Well, there’s one place where the money goes. I mean, we used to have a system in this capitalism we have here in our country where competition was supposed to deliver the cost controls, whether it was healthcare or anything else. And what we’ve got pretty much now is monopolies. I mean, I mentioned extortion. That’s what it is. The sky is the limit. There are no rules to say you can’t do this. These are private for-profit corporations, and they can pretty much do what they want. People often say to us as nurses, why do they do this? How can they do it? They do it because they can. And there’s nobody to stop them. NOOR: And so disgraced former–Turing’s pharmaceutical CEO Martin Shkreli, he defended the price hike on CBS news. This is a little bit of what he said. MARTIN SHKRELI: I know the business well, and I know that a lot of people focus on the before price and the after price. They never think about, well, what’s the value of this product? Because if you go from a low price to a high price, you might think that it must be, you know, sort of abusive. But if you actually look at the price of the product, it’s about $300 a pen. They sell the pens in 2-packs, so it’s $600. And if you think about the value that this product provides relative to its cost, it’s actually really quite a bargain, in fact. If you go to the hospital for anaphylactic shock, you’re thinking about a $5,000-$10,000 bill. So one pen for $300 that stops that cost. NOOR: So that was Martin Shkreli, the former CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, who himself was under FDC investigation for raising the price of lifesaving drug Daraprim from $13.50 to $750. Give us–talk more about your response to his defense of this price hike. ROSS: Well, he talks about the value of the medication. We would say our values are human life. And if you can’t afford–and that means individually if you can’t afford or your insurance plan they say can’t afford, or the country ends up not being able to afford these medications that are lifesaving, that person will die. I mean, there are no ifs, ands, or buts. That is what will happen. So when we talk about value as nurses, we talk about the value of human lives. We don’t talk about the value of a medication and then, you know, the fact that you can hike up the price to anything. The sky is the limit. And people will, by blackmail, by extortion, they’ll pay it. They have to. NOOR: Now, Congress is calling for an investigation into this, but do you think that’s enough? What alternative do you think needs to be put forward in the United States to address these problems at perhaps a more systemic or fundamental level? ROSS: The only thing that’s going to work in this country is what works in other countries, and that’s a single-payer system. We call it Medicare for all. We have a system that works well right now: Medicare. And there’s no reason why you couldn’t have a system like that from the moment you’re born or in utero, even, until the day you die. And with that type of system like Medicare you do, or you used to, have control on drug prices. I realize that what was put in some time ago with no, not being able to control drug costs even in Medicare, Medicaid. Now that needs to go away. Other countries control their costs and their drugs. They consider healthcare, and drugs by that same vein, to be a different realm, more like a utility, a public utility, than it would be the cost of groceries or a new car or a yacht. And that’s really what we need in this country. That’s the only thing that’s going to work. NOOR: And many people go to other countries. They drive to Canada or get medicine shipped overseas, because the prices sometimes for lifesaving drugs–you know, I myself, I have asthma. And even with insurance the cost of a monthly inhaler is in the hundreds of dollars. So even for people with insurance the costs are often just completely unaffordable. ROSS: And that is what we talked about when the ACA, Affordable Care Act, first came in. it wasn’t that we as nurses said this is a terrible plan, because it did insure a whole lot more people, number of people. But what we have been interested in from the beginning for years is not just making sure that people are insured but that people actually can have the access to care that they need. If you can’t afford the premiums, the co-pays, you’re not going to use the medications, you’re not going to see a doctor or a nurse when you need to, and we know that. Now those kinds of things with the ACA are coming to bear. They’re coming to roost. And this is what we talked about from the beginning. So there’s no pleasure in saying I told you so. What we need is a very serious discussion about what we can do, and it all centers around a single-payer Medicare for all system. NOOR: Now, the Republicans have vowed and tried repeatedly almost countless times to repeal it. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton, she strongly criticized, or even attacked Bernie Sanders for calling for universal single-payer healthcare, saying we have to build on the Affordable Care Act, on Obamacare. Talk about what the plan is for the nurses. If Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump are president, how are you and other advocates going to push for these reforms? ROSS: Well, I think that we’re past the stage where we hope to get a person in office that agrees with us. That’s never worked, really. We’re very take-it-to-the-streets people, our nurse group. So we will continue to do that, be very vocal, be very visible. What we found traveling across the country, and this was even before Bernie Sanders was running for president, was we’d heard a lot of talk about the people, I believe Secretary Clinton has said this, the American people aren’t ready for a single-payer system. What we found in talking to people across the country is oh yes, they are. And it crosses–it’s bipartisan. It crosses political boundaries. People in general understand and want that kind of a system. And I think that’s in large part due to the fact that people that have Medicare or have family members that have Medicare understand it, like it, and want something like that. NOOR: All right. Jean Ross, co-president of National Nurses United. She’s been a registered nurse for over 40 years in Minnesota. Thanks so much for joining us. ROSS: You’re welcome. NOOR: And thank you for joining us at the Real News Network.


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Jean Ross is a registered Nurse for over 40 years in Minnesota and Co-President National Nurses United.