In 18 years, the cost of one diabetes drug is up 962%

Over the past decade, a drug that many people with diabetes depend on to live — insulin — has skyrocketed in price. One study found that cost nearly tripled between 2002 and 2013.

Politicians and activists in Washington, D.C., and the local area have paid special attention to the plight during November, Diabetes Awareness Month. Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) introduced legislation that aims to end drug companies’ “exorbitant price hikes” on insulin. The hike in prices is caused by a complex web of issues including increasing profits for middlemen, a failing healthcare system and price surges from drug makers, a majority of the $27 billion global insulin market is controlled by just three companies.

Beyond serving as a global awareness campaign, Diabetes Awareness Month includes the birthday of Frederick Banting who, along with Charles Best and John James Rickard Macleod, co-discovered insulin in 1921. He didn’t put his name in the patent and, along with his colleagues, sold it for just 3 Canadian dollars to the University of Toronto. The university administered the patent and received royalty payments from drug companies that sold human insulin.

A person with Type 1 diabetes has a malfunctioning pancreas that doesn’t naturally make insulin. Insulin is a hormone that helps glucose, or sugar, get to cells to give them energy. Without insulin, too much glucose stays in the blood creating problems with the heart, eyes, kidneys, nerves, gums and teeth.

“Basically, if you don’t have insulin, you die,” said Sarah Moulton, a board member of Mama I’m Low, a Eugene-based support group for families dealing with Type 1 diabetes.

Moulton has had Type 1 for 42 years, she uses insulin everyday. She’s witnessed an increase in pricing that is hard for her and families like hers, but dire for those who are uninsured.

“I’ve seen it go from $10 a bottle to now I pay $60, and that’s only because I have really good insurance,” Moulton said.

Despite the original low-cost of the patent, people with Type 1 diabetes paid an average of $5,705 a year for insulin in 2016, nearly double what they paid in 2012, according to the Health Care Cost Institute.

In a press release on his website, Durbin points out that the U.S. “represents only 15% of the global insulin market, yet generates nearly half of pharma’s revenue on insulin.” For example, Durbin says, Lantus, a popular long-acting insulin, cost $35 when it was first introduced in 2001. The price of a Lantus vial has skyrocketed over the last few years to more than $372, while the exact same drug was sold in France for $46, and $67 in Canada, the release states.

More and more often, individuals with diabetes are often forced to choose between purchasing their medications or paying for other necessities, exposing themselves to potential short- and long-term health consequences that can be fatal according to the American Diabetes Association. When insulin costs go up, some people with diabetes are forced to use less than they need. Instead of maintaining a healthy blood sugar, people sometimes wait for emergencies to dose themselves.

“Our healthcare system is failing people, drug prices have gone up quite a bit,” said Julie Dewsnup, diabetes educator and executive director of a Eugene-based nonprofit pharmacy.

In 2018, Dewsnup wanted to do more for the local diabetes community so she opened a diabetes education care center and nonprofit pharmacy, Diabetes Community Care Team. She said people the pharmacy serves are often risking their health to balance their budgets.

“Yes, (insulin) rationing is happening here in Eugene,” Dewsnup said.

Dewsnup talked about one man in his early 20s who came to the pharmacy with a tiny bit of insulin left in his possession. Dewsnup’s organization was able to supply the young man, saving his life.

Accessibility of the drug is an additional burden to the disease, according to medical professionals. Terry Cornell, a nurse and diabetes educator at PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Medical Center at RiverBend, said that much of her job has become not only teaching patients about their diabetes diagnosis, but also how to get insulin, especially in cases when patients must navigate Medicare.

“I can’t hardly teach a patient how to use insulin if I know that they can’t afford to get it,” Cornell said.

National action was proposed earlier in this month when Merkley and Durbin introduced the End Price Gouging for Insulin Act, legislation that would end drug companies’ price hikes on insulin that have made it difficult for millions of Americans to afford the drug.

“While Big Pharma gouges patients to make big profits off of insulin, Americans are dying,” Merkley said in a news release. “Unaffordable high prices are leading to patients rationing their insulin, leading to dire health consequences — heart attacks, stroke, blindness, kidney failure, foot disease and amputations, even death.”

In an attempt to stop the price gouging, the Merkley-Durbin bill would require drug companies to offer insulin products to Americans at the median price of what they charge in eleven other major developed countries.