filling a syringe with medicine, Shingrix

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.

What Has Happened to the Cost of Insulin?

More recently, though, drug companies have modified insulin through genetic engineering. New insulins led to new patents and higher prices. Those have been climbing steadily.

The nonprofit Health Care Cost Institute estimates 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.

Unfortunately, far too many people can’t afford to leave the country to purchase their life-saving drug. On the other hand, they can’t afford the current cost of insulin they need to survive. How should the healthcare system respond?

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  1. Angel

    You have the potential to get free vials of insulin If you are on Medicare and have type 1 (insulin dependent) diabetes, and use an insulin pump (not syringes or insulin pens) to administer your insulin doses! This benefit is available through Medicare’s Durable Medical Equipment (DME) plan, and if you don’t have a Medicare Supplement plan you would only pay 80% for them. If you have a Medicare supplement plan, they could be covered at 100%. You may have to pay the annual Medicare deductible first (a once a year cost of $185.00 in 2019) before getting the big discounts. Ask your endocrinologist to check into this for you, since Medicare will require a simple blood test and other information to get you started on this plan. This is NOT a pharmacy (RX plan) benefit – it only applies to insulin administered through an insulin pump, which is covered under DME (the same benefit that pays for your pump and supplies). If your doctor or pharmacist doesn’t believe it, get a copy of the “Medicare & You” handbook for 2019, turn to page 43, under “prescription drugs (limited), and show them the first paragraph. Happy savings!

  2. Chuck

    Congress needs to “get to work” and pass legislation that will be of assistance to the American public and its health requirements rather than “rage” at each other over petty issues. For example, Congress might prohibit drug/medical advertisement from the national TV networks as did tobacco and alcohol years past. How much money is spent in TV ads for drugs? Would go along way to lower the price.

  3. Scott
    Orlando, FL

    To start, I don’t want to blame the victim. There is no question the makers of Novolog and Humalog exhibit the worst aspects of the collision of healthcare and capitalism by jacking up the prices to maximize profit to a point that people die because they can’t afford it. There are ways to avoid death in spite of the reprehensible conduct of the drug companies. There are so many faults (probably for another story) with how the various parts of the healthcare system deliver care to patients.
    Stories like make me sad for several reasons.
    1. The patients don’t ask if there are cheaper options
    2. The doctors don’t offer cheaper options.
    3. The pharmacists don’t offer cheaper options.
    While it’s not identical to Novolog or Humalog (the latest fast acting insulins, but not that new, they have been on the market for a number of years) there are older versions still for sale, I found Insulin for less than $30.00 per vial available in various cities in various states. There are reasons the newer types of insulin are preferred, but using the older types of insulin are preferred to death from diabetic ketoacidosis.

  4. Nyta

    Reading the article left me wondering : What is the benefit of the insulin that has been modified through genetic engineering? Is the old one still available?

  5. Michelle D.
    Davidson, NC

    IMHO the makers of insulin are engaged in redistribution of wealth (except for their own wealth, of course). Rather than absorbing the cost of discounting insulin for people who “qualify,” they are simply charging people with insurance more in order to pay for their virtue signaling. It is unconscionable, yet typical. We purchased human insulin for our diabetic dog starting in 2012. Within a year, the price had gone up inexplicably from $80 a vial to $120. The drug company pretended they had no idea why, suggesting the pharmacy was to blame. I believe drug companies have a right to recoup R&D, but insulin has been around for 100 years.

  6. Mario
    Newville PA.

    I would like to see some one to investigate why the same medicine cost a lot less in other countries, this go for many medicines that prices are outrageous. no to long ago I took a trip to Santo Domingo and found out that a medicine that is costing me almost $700 in this country, was only $95 there

  7. Jim
    So. Calif

    I understand that there are companies wanting to produce generic versions of insulin but BIG PHARMA, INC. is using every nasty trick at their disposal to thwart generic producers who can provide affordable insulin and thus save lives.

  8. william
    Katy, TX

    You imply in your text that one has to travel to Canada to get a prescription filled. I buy regularly by mail from Canada simply by sending them a prescription. I realize this is illegal but it’s not enforced, just as is carrying them across the border. I’m guessing your guide explains this. The big problem is that the US generally doesn’t allow institutions to negotiate drug prices, while most other countries do, thus lower prices in Canada, Mexico, etc.

  9. Joe
    North Dakota

    I bought insulin for many years from Canada. I never had an issue. The insulin would come in a little cooler with ice packs.

  10. Jane

    My son has had Juvenile diabetes since he was 16. I find the prescription drugs from India are just as good and cost almost nothing. I’m all for getting drugs from anywhere but here. I really don’t trust the FDA any more. Thanks to the Internet we’re getting some truth! Some….

  11. Greg

    Yes, this is a big problem. I believe you have got the history of insulin discovery wrong. The researchers who developed it gave it away immediately because they were concerned from the start that corporations would charge people too much for this life saving discovery. You should also note that there is a cheaper form of insulin available in most places without a prescription for about $25 a vial; but that this is a 1980’s version that is more difficult to use.

  12. Jane

    The truly obscene thing here is that the “modifications” were no doubt made in order to take in huge profits. Think of the large (and growing) number of people who MUST have this drug. The more you raise the price, the more the bottom line goes up. To me big pharma’s motto is “get rich at any cost.”

  13. Joyce

    This is a continuing concern in my household as I have a young adult child with Type 1 diabetes who depends on Indiana’s extension of Medicaid for insulin and pump supplies. He is within $50 of annual income of being booted off that program. The least amount of deductible on ObamaCare the last time I checked was $7000. That is more than half of his take home pay and would cover insulin, maybe.

  14. Felix
    Shallotte, NC

    I wonder if the original type of Insulin used back in 1922 could become available again at a profitable level for a merciful drug company?

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