My life with EpiPens
© Mylan

EpiPens have been my safety net since I was four years old.

That’s when I found out that inhaling even a fragment of a peanut would cause me to swell up like a balloon, while closing my airway for business. 

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Ever since, I’ve never been farther than an arm’s reach from an EpiPen — except for the one time I sprinted home from The Hill’s offices once I realized they weren’t in my bag.

EpiPens offer a lifeline for those of us with life-threatening allergies, making the debate on their soaring price all the more pivotal.

EpiPen is the brand name for Mylan’s epinephrine auto-injector, a shot that delivers the exact amount of adrenaline my body needs after an allergy attack. That medicine, stored in what looks like an oversized yellow pen, opens my throat up and gives me time to get to a hospital for further treatment.

The price of these life-saving devices has steadily increased from about $100 to $600 over the past nine years, according to the flurry of recent news reports that have thrust the medicine into the spotlight. And right now, the EpiPen is effectively the only game in town, as other competitors have shuttered or faced other complications.

That’s not a huge problem for those with good health insurance who only pay a co-pay, but it could have a major impact on poor families unsure how to fit their lifesaving medication into their budget.

Having an allergy means having a plan.

In my case, it means calling restaurants in advance to make sure they can accommodate you, lobbing 20 questions at someone when they offer you a homemade snack, and staying constantly vigilant as you head to baseball games, where peanut shells act as land mines.

EpiPens are a crucial piece of that plan.

Most doctors recommend that you carry two shots at all times — each package comes with two individual devices — as a second one can be used if you are too far from a hospital or have a recurrent attack.

And it’s a cardinal sin to leave them behind, especially when something as benign as eating a sandwich cut with a contaminated knife or a meal cooked in a pot that hasn’t been thoroughly scrubbed could spell trouble.

I keep one set in my bag and another set on the kitchen counter to bring with me whenever I’m not at work. That way, I’ll never leave for work without a pair — except for that one time.

I’m also lucky.

I’ve always had health insurance and have always been able to afford my medication even when the price climbed.

Most of my life, I’ve paid co-pays between $10 and $40, except for a brief stint on a different plan with a high deductible. Even then, I begrudgingly paid the sticker price, arguing that it was well worth it to keep me safe.

That’s not a luxury that all people have.

For me, $80 is well spent for peace of mind. But for those without insurance, the $600 or $1,200 might have been too difficult to scrounge up.

They have to weigh whether that enormous expense is worth it, or if they can risk the consequences of forgetting to put the shots back in their bag before heading off for the day. 

The goal is to never have to use an EpiPen by avoiding any allergens. But even in the best-case scenario, the shots expire every year or so, making it an annual expense.

That climb in price has prompted some to make their own epinephrine shots by purchasing vials of epinephrine and syringes. That’s a difficult proposition for someone who isn’t a doctor, especially given the stress while you or a loved one is suffering a serious reaction.

The beauty of the EpiPen is its utility.

All you have to do is take off the safety cap and plunge into your thigh — no measuring and you don’t even see the needle until it’s all over. Instructions are printed right along the side, meaning someone can come to your aid even if they've never seen an EpiPen before. 

Mylan, the EpiPen manufacturer, had previously offered a $100 savings card per package, cutting the maximum price to $500. In response to the outcry, the company raised that savings to $300 while enhancing a program that eliminates out-of-pocket costs for those who make up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level.

That answers some of the concerns — low-income individuals and families will receive more of a savings, putting that life-saving medicine within reach. 

But it doesn’t seem that the saga is over.

Senators are still questioning why the company won’t lower the actual price of the device, only providing discounts that won’t be used by Medicare, Medicaid and insurance companies.

It’s unclear how this will ultimately resolve. But for someone who owes their life to these small devices, the debate is of utmost importance. 

Ben Kamisar is a campaign reporter for The Hill.


The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.