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The price we pay for insulin

Written by Diane Archer

Insulin was discovered 100 years ago. Still, pharmaceutical companies marketing the drug are making enormous profits from it today by patenting new formulations and ways to deliver it. The price we pay for insulin is enormous, both in monetary terms and in lives lost.

StatNews reports that in the 11 years between 2002 and 2013, the price of insulin has nearly tripled for the 30 million Americans who need it. The list price for one vial of insulin (diabetics generally need two to four vials each month) is now more than $250. Humalog, one insulin drug, has gone from $21 to $255 a vial in 20 years.

The cost of insulin does not have to be so high for pharmaceutical companies to profit handsomely. A BMJ Global Health study found that it should not cost more than $133 a year to produce rapid or long-acting analog insulin treatments, and it could cost as little as $78. Human insulin should cost as little as $48 a month to produce.

The authors of the BMJ study report that $100 a year for long-acting insulin seemed like a fair price for people with Type 1 diabetes. Yet drug companies are charging the US more than 12 times that, $1251.

The problem is that pharmaceutical companies can set their prices for brand-name insulin. So, they charge as much as eight times more than their cost.

Companies like Sanofi, which manufactures insulin, suggest that the solution to high insulin prices is for insurance companies to pay more for insulin so that diabetics pay less. That is no solution. It simply shifts costs, raising health insurance premiums, without reining in health care spending.

Pharmaceutical company patient assistance programs are no solution either. They too do nothing to rein in health care spending.

Some lawmakers claim that Eli Lilly, Sanofi and Novo Nordisk, all of which market insulin, are engaged in price collusion. And, 11 diabetics have filed a class action lawsuit claiming fraudulent pricing by these companies under federal RICO and state consumer protection laws.

The Congressional Diabetes Caucus, a bipartisan group of nearly 300 Congresspeople, which was formed more than 20 years ago, has issued a report listing a variety of ways to address the rising price of insulin. Many of their suggestions will not rein in the price, for example, transparency in insulin pricing. But, the focus and pressure on the pharmaceutical companies could lead to more meaningful action.

In the meantime, Americans with diabetes and their families continue to struggle to afford needed insulin. Some are forced to go without it and die. Their families are organizing to protest the price of insulin.

If you want Congress to rein in drug prices, please sign this petition.

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