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Understanding the High Price of Insulin in the United States

15 min read
Understanding the High Price of Insulin in the United States

Insulin is a lifesaving drug used by people with type 1 and type 2 diabetes to make up for a malfunctioning pancreas.

Insulin isn’t a new treatment. Doctors first used it to treat diabetes in 1921. Before its development, people with type 1 diabetes wouldn’t live more than a year or two. It came about before the era of high drug prices, and it hasn’t been modified much since around 15 years ago.

Yet, the high price of insulin is one of the best examples of inflated drug prices in the United States. Why does insulin cost so much here, and what can be done about it? Keep reading to learn more.

Why Is Insulin So Expensive?

As of 2019, the average cost of a single vial of insulin is $285 (nationwide). Most people need two to four of these per month to live. That means one person could easily spend up to $1,200 a month just on insulin – not including other meds or equipment they may need to manage their diabetes.

However, insulin is an old drug. First used in 1921, researchers and drug manufacturers aren’t trying to recoup the cost of innovation. It’s also known to be a life-saving drug: diabetes was a death sentence before the 1920s, and it’s very commonly used.

What is more, the last time there was a new meaningful variation was 15 years ago. The current version in use received FDA approval ages ago.

So, if the product is the same, why are manufacturers putting it at prices out of reach for the average patient?

It’s because manufacturers set the prices.

The irony of the pharmaceutical industry’s price-gouging diabetics is rich. When the inventor of insulin went to patent his discovery in 1923, he didn’t put his name on the patent. He thought it was unethical to profit from something that was going to save countless lives. What’s more: the team of co-investors sold the patent to the University of Toronto for the meager sum fo $1 to ensure that everyone could afford it.

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Who’s Sending the Cost of Insulin Sky High?

Today, there are three manufacturers making insulin in the U.S.

They are allowed to set the price. Not only are they in charge, but they don’t have to justify their decisions to consumers. There’s not even a price ceiling set.

The FDA doesn’t have the authority to step in and tell manufacturers to stop toying with prices. Insulin is expensive because manufacturers want it to be, and they can hide their decision-making processes to do it – and for no other reason.

You might think that perhaps a budget version might appear. After all, that’s what happens in other sectors of the market. In the prescription drug market, it usually is a generic brand. However, generic insulin is impossible because insulin needs to be incredibly close to what the body naturally creates; a synthesized chemical won’t work in this case.

What about a budget biological product? It seems like good business because sometimes, it pays to be the cheapest. However, with only three options on the market, no manufacturer has a real incentive to slash prices. And because people need the drug to live, patients are effectively chained to their insulin, particularly when their doctor prescribes them a specific formula.

Is Anyone Trying to Bring the High Cost of Insulin Down?

Diabetics, their families, and society, in general, recognizes the insulin crisis as something that’s entirely avoidable and incredibly dangerous. But what can you do if the FDA has no teeth and the manufacturers aren’t interested in lowering prices?

State legislatures are stepping in to help.

In May, Gov. Jared Polis of Colorado signed a bill into law that limits the amount Coloradans will spend on their insulin to $100 per month (in total). The bill targets high prices not by forcing drug manufacturers to sell to Colorado at a discount but by forcing a change in what they can charge insurance companies and requiring insurance providers to pay the difference.

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The bill is expected to show a slight increase in healthcare premiums, but it’s expected to rise at only a few cents per person per month.

Walmart has also started selling a re-branded version of the Novo Nordisk insulin. It sells these at $25 a vial, but it also comes at a cost. The formula is older and not as effective. And not everyone can use it: some people with diabetes are allergic to it, or it doesn’t manage their symptoms and thus their doctors don’t recommend it for them.

Looking Across the Border

Americans themselves are looking for creative solutions to the insulin problem.

Many look across the border to Canada and Mexico to shop for prescription drugs.

There, they buy up to a three or six months supply of their insulin for a fraction of the cost. Often, prices in other countries are as little as 10 percent of the price they pay at the pharmacy down the street from their home. Those close to the borders often cross the border to buy at a pharmacy. However, an online pharmacy market has also popped up to cater to those who don’t live near enough to Canada or Mexico to make the trip on any regular basis.

Is There Hope in Sight for Diabetics?

The price of insulin continues to skyrocket in the United States – and nowhere else. Until someone stops the three manufacturers from continuing to price-gouge customers, prices won’t come down.

Until then, people living with diabetes (and their families) will need to come up with creative ways to save money on insulin just to stay alive.

Did you find this explanation helpful? Look for more great content in our lifestyle archives.

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