Last month Ohio’s junior senator Rob Portman made headlines with astute political timing by joining Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill to probe the rising price of EpiPens, an emergency treatment product that counteracts severe allergic reactions. Since its inception, the company that makes the epinephrine injections, Mylan Pharmaceuticals, has enthusiastically raised the price for a pack of two EpiPens from $100 back in 2009 to as much as $600 today, so their heads were clearly on a public chopping block.
Portman and McCaskill notified the media in September that they had “opened a preliminary inquiry concerning Mylan Pharmaceuticals’ pricing and competition practices with respect to the EpiPen,” and that the investigation would be “robust, thorough, and bipartisan.” The media swooned as Portman and McCaskill stated they shared Americans’ “concern over Mylan’s sustained price increases,” and for a brief moment, ol’ Robby looked like a senator who knew how to reach across the aisle and help the middle class in his state.
While McCaskill joined several of her fellow Senate Democrats — including Ohio’s senior senator Sherrod Brown — to oppose Mylan Pharmaceuticals’ apparent price gauging, Portman stood out in the crowd. Why would a Republican funded by the Koch Brothers impede on a corporation’s natural born right to take advantage of consumers using the free market? After all, corporations are people, my friend! Naturally, as has been the case before, Portman cited his family as to why he finally felt empathy for thousands of his constituents. According to The Columbus Dispatch, “Portman told a Toledo television station that his own wife uses the EpiPen,” suggesting that maybe — just maybe — the Senator’s family also felt working families’ EpiPen pain.
There’s only a few inconsistencies with this narrative — first of all, according to The Dispatch, in 2014 Portman accepted $1,000 from Mylan’s PAC, rightfully bringing into question whether his loyalty is to the company or the company’s consumers. That kind of money, while modest in lobbying terms, could’ve bought at least one and a half packs of EpiPens for a middle class family in need. Furthermore, Mylan’s CEO Heather Bresch happens to be the daughter of Portman’s cohort from our southern border, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia. So Portman could’ve just walked over to Manchin’s office to ask him what the deal was, but decided to have a big ceremonial press announcement to make sure everyone knew what he was up to instead.
So did Portman just make a big scene about EpiPen’s prices to deflect from the real issue, which is actually rising employer healthcare deductibles? According to reports, the biggest problem these days is not that Americans are getting gauged at the pharmacy, but that workers are paying way more for health insurance through their yearly deductibles, despite not receiving adequate benefits. In fact, as of 2013 Americans spent almost $1 trillion (with a ‘T’) on their insurance alone. This trend is spreading nationwide, so much so that even a Kaiser Family Foundation report described the developing problem as “a shift from comprehensive to more skimpy coverage.”
But don’t count on ol’ Robby to make a big fuss and launch a symbolic investigation into the health insurance industry’s pricing anytime soon — since 2011, Portman’s campaign committee has raked in $836,800 from the insurance industry, $458,549 from the pharmaceutical industry, $366,777 from health professionals and $279,916 from hospitals and nursing homes. Portman’s PACs have brought in hundreds of thousands from the insurance industry since 2011 as well. Not to mention that in this election cycle alone, Portman has received $5,500 from Anthem, $5,000 from Humana, $5,000 from Aetna, $3,500 from Cigna, $2,500 from UnitedHealth and so on.
Thus we here at Plunderbund must pose the question — is Senator Portman making drug prices a convenient campaign issue because he cares, or is it just to deflect from his allies and benefactors in the insurance industry? After all, hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years can buy you a lot more favors than just one $1,000 contribution. And besides, if looking tough on Mylan helps get Portman reelected in November, he can just crank down his subcommittee’s investigation when the cameras turn away next year. Because let’s face it, if you’re a senator, your wife can probably afford EpiPens just fine.
Pending the outcome of Portman and McCaskill’s investigation, it’s probably safe to assume that Portman’s apparent push on EpiPen’s pricing is just another “EmptyPromise.”