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No Excuse for Gouging Poisoned Children

It’s hard to imagine a new low more vile than this one: Valeant Pharmaceuticals jacking up the price of a drug used to treat lead poisoned children by 2,700 percent in a single year. According to Stat, the online health and medicine news site, the intravenous drug Calcium EDTA was acquired by Valeant in 2013. At the time, the list price for a package of vials was $950. By December 2014, the list price had spiked to $26,927, according to Truven Health Analytics.

Calcium EDTA is a medicine vital to saving the lives of children poisoned by lead, a disease that disproportionally affects low income children of color. Small children become poisoned predominantly from ingesting or inhaling chipping, flaking lead based paint dust, found in deteriorating older homes and rental properties across inner city America. The burden of protecting children from this entirely preventable disease falls disproportionally on low-income families, who spend an average of 50 percent of their income on housing, much more than middle or upper-income families, leaving them with little discretionary funds left over to deal with healthcare emergencies.

For families insured through Medicaid, the U.S. government covers most of their healthcare bills.  But the government doesn’t always cover such bills entirely, so families least able to absorb the shock of healthcare emergencies are often the ones facing increased medical costs, such as the price increase of Calcium EDTA. And when Medicaid picks up the costs, U.S. taxpayers are ultimately the ones absorbing the shock of pharmaceutical price gouging.

True, there are relatively few cases of lead poisoning so severe that they require chelation therapy, which uses the Calcium EDTA drug. Nevertheless Congress, which has hauled Valeant before several Congressional committee hearings over the last two years to address price gouging, has an obligation to stop the bleeding and pass pharmaceutical price reform legislation that regulates prices for vital drugs like this one.

Meanwhile, less severe lead poisoning affects an estimated 535,000 children in the U.S., who have blood lead levels greater than the CDC reference level of 5 mg/dL. This type of lead poisoning lowers IQ and increases learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, and aggressive behavior. It increases the need for special education services, the likelihood of criminal activity and reduces the likelihood of high school and college graduation. The average loss of lifetime earnings due to lead poisoning is $995,000 per child (in 2016 inflation adjusted dollars). The loss to society as a whole is estimated to be $50.9 billion, reflecting the value of lost productivity as well as medical care costs.

The real shame is that lead poisoning is an entirely preventable disease. Each dollar invested in lead paint hazard control results in a return of $17–$221. The time is now to end childhood lead poisoning as a major public health threat. The Green & Healthy Homes Initiative has a Strategic Plan to End Childhood Lead Poisoning within five years, and calls on policy makers and public health stakeholders at the local, state and federal level to take action today.

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