WASHINGTON — As Mylan CEO Heather Bresch sat expressionless on Wednesday, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., lashed out at her for what he said was the only reason her company had raised the price of a pack of two EpiPens from $100 to $600 over the past nine years.
That reason, “I believe, was to get filthy rich at the expense of our constituents," he said.
Facing the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Bresch was testifying for the first time since public outrage has emerged over the price increases.
Bresch, daughter of Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., tried to quell the fury by casting the image of a company that makes a life-saving device. After costs — including giving nearly 700,000 free EpiPens to schools — the company makes only $50 on each injector, she said.
Bresch, who grew up in Fairmont, West Virginia, portrayed herself as one who comes from humble roots.
“I grew up in a small town in West Virginia, in a close family with a strong work ethic,” she told the committee.
Bresch said she started at Mylan in 1992 as an entry-level clerk “performing basic administrative tasks in the basement of the company's manufacturing facility.” She had 15 different positions as she worked herself up, she said.
However, under questioning, Bresch acknowledged that she made $18 million last year.
The EpiPen controversy comes amid outrage over sharp increases in the prices of other drugs including the decision by Martin Shkreli's Turing Pharmaceuticals to raise the price of Daraprim, a drug used by AIDS and cancer patients, from $13.50 to $750.
Bresch told the The Times West Virginian in a 2012 profile, after being named CEO, that she’d discovered in a “light-bulb” moment while working as Mylan's government relations director that political advocacy was “where I could make a difference … whether it was states trying to fight generic substitution or all the tactics by brand companies to keep generic and affordable medicine off the market.”
Bresch’s answers Wednesday, however, did little quell the controversy during an hours-long tongue-lashing.
Rep. Eleanor Norton Holmes, D-D.C., and committee members on both sides of the aisle painted her as the overpaid head of a company that heartlessly raised prices for a device that injects a drug that counteracts potentially deadly allergic reactions.
Holmes noted Bresch was making $2.45 million before the company began raising EpiPen prices.
“You got a hefty increase,” she said.
“What happened that you deserved to earn a 67 time increase?” Norton said.
“I believe Mylan has done a tremendous …,” Bresch began before she was interrupted by Norton.
"What have you done?” she said.
Bresch said cheaper products developed by the company have save the country $180 million. She mentioned, as well, the free EpiPens the company gives to schools.
“I could not be more proud of that,” she said.
That didn’t satisfy Rep. John Duncan, R-Tenn., who described himself as a pro-business Republican. “But no one really deserves $18 million," he said.
Duncan, like other Republicans, said the free market is not working in this case because Mylan has a virtual monopoly over auto-injected epinephrine.
“Parents say they need this. It’s not optional to someone who has severe allergic reactions to a variety of things,” committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, lectured Bresch.
“People are afraid that this epinephrine is not going to be in reach when a young child suddenly needs it," said Chaffetz.
He noted that some parents buy several packs of the device to make sure one is handy if their child needs it. “You need one in the car and another in the backpack or whatever,” he said.
The controversy, meanwhile, has dragged in West Virginia’s former first family.
Bresch said she was angry over a USA Today story that described how her mother, Gayle Manchin, after becoming head of the National Association of State Boards of Education in 2012, spearheaded a first-of-its-kind effort to encourage states to require schools to purchase medical devices that fight life-threatening allergic reactions.
Saying the article was “inaccurate,” Bresch said it was a "very cheap shot to bring my mother into this.”
Gayle Manchin became head of the association in 2012. She had been appointed by her husband, then the state's governor, to the West Virginia State Board of Education five years earlier.
On Tuesday, Sen. Manchin was forced to release a statement saying he appointed his wife “because she was one of the most qualified people in the state of West Virginia to address the needs of our education system.”
Noting she’d been a K-12 public school teacher and a faculty member at Fairmont State University, Manchin said his wife “is held in the highest regard for her compassion, honesty and devotion by me and all who know her."
Manchin spokesman Jonathan Kott declined to comment further on Wednesday and did not respond when asked if Manchin was watching his daughter’s questioning.
Sen. Manchin, however, has benefitted from Mylan’s success. Mylan’s political action committee and its employees are his second-largest campaign contributor since 2011, having given $58,250 to his campaigns.
Bresch gave $53,000 to her father’s campaigns in his Senate special election campaign in 2010 and his campaign for a full term in 2012, according to the Federal Election Commission.
Bresch on Wednesday responded when asked if she was going to lower prices. The company is planning to offer a generic version of EpiPen at $300-a-pack.
“I’m concerned this is a rope-a-dope strategy,” Cummings told her. “You take your punches but then go on and keep raising the prices.
"They fly back to their mansions in their private jets and laugh all the way to the bank," he said. "Meanwhile, our constituents file for bankruptcy and watch their children get sicker or die.”
Rep. Scott Desjarlais, R-Tenn., noted the generic's price is still three times higher than EpiPen’s price was in 2007.
“You’re trying to make us feel good,” he said. “And I’m not buying it.”
Kery Murakami is the Washington, D.C. reporter for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.