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Hidden camera tests reveal pitfalls in Colorado law making EpiPens more affordable

Lawmaker reacts to undercover video and addresses confusion about bill's rollout
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Posted at 5:36 PM, Mar 17, 2024
and last updated 2024-03-18 13:59:03-04

DENVER — After learning multiple pharmacies were not complying with a new Colorado state law making EpiPens more affordable, Denver7 Investigates conducted a hidden camera operation at multiple locations and brought the footage to the bill’s co-sponsor. The test uncovered confusion about the bill and problems in properly informing pharmacies around the state, resulting in the delay of affordable, life-saving medication.

On January 1, House Bill 1002 made epinephrine injectors, commonly known by the brand EpiPen, available for $60 to qualifying residents. This is considerably lower than the up to $700 price tag a two-pack can cost for those without insurance.

Jackson Pugh, a high school rugby player, needs access to EpiPens due to a life-threatening peanut allergy.

“It's still kind of nerve-wracking. Like thinking if I eat something wrong that it could be life-threatening,” he said.

Pugh is one of 500,000 Coloradans who rely on epinephrine to be the first line of defense during an allergic reaction. He and his mother testified in front of state lawmakers last year, helping to pass HB 23-1002.

Specifically, the new bill addresses the "rising costs of epinephrine auto-injectors make this life-saving medication difficult or impossible to obtain for many people,” and serves to "establish an affordability program to ensure Colorado residents have greater access to epinephrine."

Two months after the program's rollout, multiple sources have come forward, telling Denver7 Investigates they could not find a pharmacy that honored the cost cut. Denver7 Investigates went undercover at multiple locations in the metro area to find out why the law was being followed.

“Us as pharmacists, and us as a company, don't know what to do,” said a manager at one location when asked by a Denver7 producer if they honored the $60 value.

“I honestly think most places just didn't know how to handle it,” said a pharmacy employee at another location.

“You're my first person to do this… so I don't know what I'm doing yet,” a pharmacist said.

Multiple employees and pharmacists expressed confusion to Denver7 Investigates. Some said they had no way to bill patients or process payments at the cheaper rate, others blamed the medication’s manufacturers for not honoring the new price.

“The [Colorado] Board of Pharmacy just released a thing… right now, they don't have an answer. So right now, we're all waiting to see what the manufacturers do,” the manager said.

“It says to just fill this out and bring it here and it seems like it's like on the pharmacies to just like override the price, but we can't, like we're not getting any type of payment reimbursement, nothing from the government,” said another pharmacy manager, who spent over an hour during her lunch break to try and learn more about the law. “There's no direction as to what we are supposed to do other than try to contact the manufacturer.”

Despite qualifying for application and presenting it at multiple pharmacies, 70% of the locations visited by Denver7 producers lacked either the knowledge or ability to sell a pair of EpiPens for the discounted price. Denver7 Investigates took the hidden camera footage to Democratic State Senator Dylan Roberts, the bill’s Co-Sponsor, who admitted the law is not working.

Hidden camera tests reveal pitfalls in Colorado law making EpiPens more affordable

“She [the manager] clearly understands the frustration with the lack of accountability from these big pharma companies and a lack of information of how she can fix the problem,” Roberts said. “She's trying to do the right thing.”

Senator Roberts said both he and the governor, who signed the legislation into law last June, expected the law was being followed. He told Denver7 Investigates, it’s the state’s job to make sure.

“The state government oversees pharmacies and pharmacists,” he said. “I've run this program through the Board of Pharmacy and the Division of Insurance.”

However, some pharmacy locations visited during the hidden camera test did follow the law. Pharmacists at a Safeway in Arapahoe County and a King Soopers in Denver understood how to honor the price change, selling Denver7 Investigates two epinephrine injectors at the correct price.

“We just need to make a few phone calls, but it's not like really complicated,” the Safeway pharmacist said, telling a Denver7 producer the medication is available for $60 at any Safeway location, as long as it is in stock.

“It gives me hope,” Roberts said, after learning Denver7 was successful at a few locations. “I mean it's a bright spot in a pretty tough set of videos.”

Roberts concluded the evidence from the undercover videos would help him to address the problem and hold people accountable.

“Now when the lobbyists come and say it's not our fault, I can point to the video and say ‘Yes it is. This is what's happening in pharmacies across the state. You are the manufacturer, you need to comply with the law and help the pharmacists do their job,’” he said. “We can fix it. I am sad about the two and a half months we lost.”

Senator Roberts tells Denver7 Investigates, that he and Attorney General Phil Weiser are now considering enforcing the $10,000 penalty against injector manufacturers. Roberts is also pushing for better communications from his state agencies to inform pharmacies.

Denver7 Investigates reached out to the Colorado Retail Council for comment and perspective on behalf of pharmacies. They have not responded to our questions.

There is currently a lawsuit in process from at least one manufacturer against the state of Colorado in an effort to fight the cost cut.

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