JENISON, MICH. - As thousands of West Michigan parents send their kids off to school this week, many worry about severe food allergies and how to afford medication necessary to treat them.
Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) is the leading non-profit advocating for the 15-million Americans with food allergies. FARE estimates that 6-million of those are children. That's an average of two children, in every U.S. classroom, that are allergic to at least one food.
8-year-old Jeffrey Renberg, of Jenison, is one of those children. He was only four when his parents discovered he was severely allergic to tree nuts.
"My husband had picked him up form my mother-in-law's house -- on the way home my husband gave him a Pecan Sandie cookie," his mother Katie recalls. "It is only five miles away and all of a sudden Jeff said 'Dad, my eyes are really itchy.'
"A little later he says, 'My tongue feels like it is on fire.'" Luckily, Jeffrey's dad got him to the hospital in time.
"A doctor came out and took one look at Jeff ... and gave him an EpiPen and some Benadryl. "Within 15 minutes, he was back to normal," Katie said.
Since then, Jeff's parents make sure he always has multiple EpiPens nearby.
"We have one in my purse, we have one on the kitchen counter, we make sure the school has one," she said. "At one time we were buying six EpiPens, that's three boxes."
At that time the Renbergs' prescriptions were covered under their medical insurance plan.
"Then it was a $20 co-pay per box, so it was only $60," she said.
Now, with different insurance and the soaring cost of EpiPen auto injectors, it costs a lot more.
"This last time, for two boxes ... it was $1,065." That is a lot of money for a drug she hopes to never have to use.
"It's outrageous," said Renberg. "It's very scary because it is a life-saving device.
"It makes me angry, it is our son's life."
She is not alone. Millions of Americans are angry and frustrated.
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Mylan Pharmaceuticals, the maker of EpiPen, has hiked prices between 400 percent and 500 percent since 2007.
"It is a hardship, many patients are asking for some co-pay cards or free samples," said Dr. Karyn Gell of Grand Rapids Allergy. "The recommendation is for you to have two of these because we know that 30 percent of patients, dealing with anaphylaxis, can need a second dose before paramedics get to the patient."
Renberg says they use a health savings account offered through her husband's employer to cover the costs of the anti-allergy medication.
"Each week we take a bit out of his pay check and put into the HSA and when it is time to buy EpiPens that's what we use," she said.
However, she feels sorry for those less fortunate.
"We will make it work however we need to make it work," said the mother of two. "But, if it were me and I had the allergy, I don't know if I would buy those EpiPens. I might just take my chances."
Which is exactly what some people are doing.
However, Dr. Gell says it is a very a bad idea because even after planning and taking precautions, accidents can happen.
"The sooner we get that epinephrine in that patient, the sooner we can resolve that potentially life-threatening event.
"The people who end up dying from anaphylaxis have not received epinephrine within a 30 minute window," she said.
Under intense pressure and accusations of price gouging, drug-maker Mylan, has agreed to start selling a generic version of the EpiPen, which will cost half the price.
That comes as some relief for millions of severe allergy sufferers. However, it has not lessened the level of pressure Mylan Pharmaceuticals is under.
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Two years ago, Michigan joined several states that require all schools to have at least two EpiPen auto injectors in each building. Some think that increased demand, among other things, has factored into the price hike.
Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2016, New York's attorney general says he is launching an investigation into Mylan Pharmaceuticals for potentially including "anti-competitive terms" into sales contracts with schools.
Dr. Gell encourages parents to make sure they have an up-to-date action plan on file with their children's schools. The document can be found here and other Back to School resources are listed on FARE's website.
(© 2016 WZZM)