Closing the Largest Generic Drug Plant in the US Is a Sick Joke

Morgantown, W.Va.—At a moment when public health and the economy were on the top of people’s minds, mass layoffs were the last thing pharmaceutical packer Carla Shultz expected when she got on the Zoom call with her union shortly before Christmas. Shultz has worked for 13 years at Mylan Pharmaceuticals here—a stable, union job at the largest manufacturer of generic drugs in the United States.

With Covid-19 vaccines getting approved, Shultz imagined that new work might be opening up. Instead, Mylan’s workers were informed that the company’s new owners were closing the Morgantown flagship plant and shifting the work to India or Australia, effective July 31, 2021.

“We’ve had no recalls. We’ve been FDA-ready every time. It’s a pristine plant with hard-working employees. It’s just unbelievable that they would shut us down,” said Shultz this month, standing outside the ranch house where her mother, Barbara, a coal miner’s widow, sat surrounded by family photographs, hooked up to an oxygen machine.

Just one of Barbara’s chemotherapy meds costs $7,000 a month, says Shultz. Nearing retirement herself, she doubts if she’ll ever find another job with pay and the benefits comparable to what she’s received at Mylan. Certainly not around Morgantown.

Mylan Pharmaceuticals pumps out around 18 billion doses a year of lifesaving generic drugs. For close to six decades, it’s produced everything from penicillin to Levrothyroxine, a popular thyroid drug that millions of Americans take daily. The factory’s not just a big link in the national production chain. It’s a big presence in West Virginia. Founded in the 1960s by an Army vet recalled fondly as “Mike” (Milan) Puskar, the business used to plow millions of dollars back into the local economy not only through contracts with local businesses and taxes but also through philanthropy. West Virginia University’s football team plays at Milan Puskar Stadium, not far from the plant. Puskar helped start a free medical clinic downtown that serves thousands of poor patients annually, and a breast cancer clinic at the medical school—named after Milan’s widow.

After Puskar retired in the late 1990s, the new directors went on a merger and acquisition spree. Mylan became embroiled in various scandals—most tragically, the EpiPen pricing scandal. In 2007, a two-pack EpiPen—a literally lifesaving necessity for those with severe allergies—was priced at $50; today, it costs over $600. Mylan, already one of the highest-earning drug makers in the country, last merged last November with an offshoot of Pfizer to form a new entity, Viatris. One of the newly formed company’s earliest moves was to close the plant and shift manufacturing overseas.

Offshoring manufacturing doesn’t mean the drugs will become any cheaper, points out Shultz, “The company will make more money off making that medicine overseas, but they’re not going to charge us any less for it.”