According to recent figures, in 2016, the same vial of insulin cost twice as much as it did in 2014.
The drug companies are blocking generic drug-makers and pushing prices up, while insurers raise premiums to keep up.
Families are desperate; buying and bartering insulin online because they can no longer afford it.
The prices for life-saving insulin have only continued to climb while lawmakers and patients accuse drug companies of colluding.
Between 2002 and 2013, the prescription’s cost tripled. Insulin’s steady inflation is driven by a combination of drug companies’ ‘price-shadowing,’ improvements to the drug and competition-deterring patenting practices.
A one-month prescription costs $666 without insurance, according to data from the Health Care Cost Institute (HCCI.) This has triggered an outcry from US lawmakers who suspect drug company collusion.
In 1923, the entire original patent for insulin was sold for $3, while a month’s supply of the essential drug now costs 222 times that.
In the US, an estimated 1.15 million people have been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Their pancreases are unable to produce insulin to break down carbohydrates and make sugar useful to the body’s metabolism on their own.
In order to maintain healthy blood sugar levels, people with type 1 diabetes must have shots of synthetic insulin.
There are another 21.9 million people have type 2 diabetes. If lifestyle changes such as weight loss and improved diet and exercise habits do not improve their conditions, they will eventually need insulin as well.
Originally, the drug was derived from animals, but for the last several decades, advancements in genetically engineered drugs have allowed scientists to hone the synthetic to be more like the real thing.
Today, most insulin is made from E. coli bacteria. As the technology improves, it has become more widespread. In basic economics, competition typically drives prices down, but the pharmaceutical industry works a little differently.
Drug companies get patents on their products and have exclusive rights to the formula for 20 years. When the patent expires, generic drug companies can make their own, cheaper version.
However, there is a catch. If a pharmaceutical company can make improvements to their drug that are small enough for it is functionally the same, but just significant enough to be called ‘novel’ by the patent office, they can effectively get a new patent on an old drug.
The practice is called patent ‘ever-greening,’ and allows companies to keep raising or at least maintaining prices, and pushes their competitors to do the same. Every time these companies get a new patent, they push back the date when generic companies will be allowed to make their versions.
Three major pharmaceutical companies – Eli Lilly, Sanofi, and Novo Nordisk in the meantime, have been playing constant catch up with one another’s prices.
Patients and regulators have taken note that shortly after one company’s version of insulin becomes more expensive, the others quickly follow suit. That’s when the insurance companies shuffle around which company’s insulin they cover.
Families have taken matters into their own hands, resorting to buying insulin on a black market insulin or looking to match with families for a trade of their respective covered kinds of insulin in private Facebook forums.
In January, a group of patients filed a class action lawsuit against the three main insulin producers for colluding to increase prices for the life-saving drug.
Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Elijah Cummings a year ago, wrote to the Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission calling for investigations of the same three companies.
President Trump recently nominated Alex Azar to be the next Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, hailing him as a ‘star’ for bringing down drug prices.
Azar has said that getting costs under control will be his top priority, but his previous post as CEO of Eli Lilly – the first of the three major insulin makers – has generated doubt from some. Others outright blamed him for being the first to triple insulin prices.
As patents for some of the earliest long-lasting forms of insulin are approaching their expiration dates, there may be some hope for diabetes sufferers, and generics will be able to make substitutes.
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