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High Cost of Insulin May Be Deadly

The cost of insulin has been rising dramatically since before 2012. Drug manufacturers are beginning to moderate their prices.

Insulin was first used to treat type 1 diabetes on January 11th, 1922. It was a major medical breakthrough. In type 1 diabetes, the body cannot make insulin, and without this hormone, the patient dies. With insulin, people with type 1 diabetes had a chance at life. The patent on insulin expired many decades ago. As a result, for years the cost of insulin was quite affordable. However, that changed dramatically in the 21st century. During that time, the average price increased four-fold. Patients in the US pay about ten times more for their insulin than people in most other developed countries.

Drug Manufacturers Dropping Insulin Prices:

Last year (2022), Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act. This legislation capped the monthly price for Medicare patients on Part D prescription coverage at $35 per month. That includes almost 4 million people. But about one in five people with type 1 diabetes have coverage that still leaves them paying hundreds of dollars a month. (For more about that, keep reading below.) In addition, a recent survey found that 20 percent of adults under 65 with diabetes reported rationing their insulin to save money (JAMA, March 29, 2023).

Drug manufacturers are finally responding to public pressure and putting caps on their pricing for insulin. Novo Nordisk was the first to announce this move, followed by Eli Lilly, maker of Humalog. Sanofi, which makes Lantus brand insulin, has announced that it too will have a $35/month cap on out-of-pocket costs for insured patients using this insulin.

What Happened to the Cost of Insulin?

Since the 1990s, drug companies have modified insulin through genetic engineering. The first of these, Lispro, came on the market in 1996. New insulins led to new patents and higher prices. Those have been climbing steadily, until the recent announcements.

The nonprofit Health Care Cost Institute estimated that the yearly cost of insulin for people with type 1 diabetes in 2012 was around $2,800 per patient (Health Care Cost Institute, January 21, 2019). By 2016, that number had almost doubled to roughly $5,700 annually.

With prices that high, many people have difficulty paying for their insulin. In recent months, some people have died. Investigators have attributed their deaths to insulin rationing. Here is a CBS news story on a tragic case.

Can You Lower the Cost of Insulin by Shopping Overseas?

Some people have tried to solve the problem by crossing the border. An NBC news report followed Americans buying insulin in Mexico. They spent about $900 for the medicine that would have cost $8,500 at home. Other Americans with type 1 diabetes have addressed the cost of insulin by shopping in Canada. This PharmacyChecker blog describes the regulations.

Relatively few people can afford to leave the country to purchase their life-saving drug, so it’s little wonder they have been criticizing manufacturers. Hopefully, recent price adjustments. that will go into effect over the summer will make a difference for many people with diabetes.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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