DRUG COMPANY PRICE GOUGING: THE INSULIN CASE

A quintessential case of price gouging by drug companies, with serious and sometimes fatal consequences, is that of insulin. Roughly 30 million Americans have diabetes, a chronic disease where the body’s mechanism for controlling blood sugar levels isn’t working properly. About 7 million of them must take multiple doses of insulin daily to control blood sugar. Those with Type 1 diabetes, formerly referred to as early-onset or juvenile diabetes, suffer from a pancreas that doesn’t produced adequate amounts of natural insulin so they must use three to four 20-milliliter vials of manufactured insulin a month (or other equivalent forms of insulin). Failure to use insulin regularly to control blood sugar levels can be fatal or have serious long-term impacts on health, including on vision and mobility.

Insulin is a 100-year-old drug whose three developers at the University of Toronto in 1922 sold their patent rights to the University for $1 apiece. They thought this would guarantee affordable access to those needing it in perpetuity. They sold manufacturing and distribution rights to Lilly in the U.S. and Nordisk in Europe. After a year, competitors were free to enter the market.

Today, three big pharmaceutical corporations make the worldwide supply of insulin: Lilly, Novo Nordisk, and Sanofi. Their prices for insulin have skyrocketed, tripling from 2007 to 2017, resulting in their making billions of dollars in profits from their insulin sales.

The U.S. market has 15% of global insulin users but generates 50% of worldwide revenue because prices here are so much higher than they are elsewhere. [1] For example, vials of insulin that sell for close to $300 in the U.S. sell for $30 in Canada.

Insulin for a Type 1 diabetic costs about $1,300 a month in the U.S. Because the U.S. does not regulate drug prices as other countries do, insulin’s manufacturers have increased U.S. prices dramatically in recent years. For example, a 20-milliliter vial of insulin that cost $175 fifteen years ago costs $1,487 today, eight and a half times as much. Because Medicare, the U.S. health insurance for seniors, is prohibited by law from negotiating drug prices (a gift to the industry from friendly Congress people and a friendly President), Medicare spending on insulin grew from $1.4 billion in 2007 to $13.3 billion in 2017. While some of this increase is due to increased numbers of patients using it, per patient Medicare spending on insulin increased 358% from $862 to $3,949. Out-of-pocket spending by Medicare patients themselves also increased, going from $236 million to $968 million. [2]

Estimates of the cost to produce a vial of insulin range from $2.28 to $6.16 depending on the version of insulin and other factors, [3] so the $300 retail cost represents a huge mark-up and huge profits for the drug makers. Until the 1970s, the price of insulin stayed relatively low. In the 1940s the U.S. Department of Justice leveled small anti-trust fines on entities in the Lilly supply chain, indicating the U.S. regulators would intervene if prices were jacked up. [4]

Starting in the late 1970s, changes in politics and laws created increased opportunities for drug makers to profit from the exclusive rights granted by patents on drugs and to effectively extend the longevity of patent protections by tweaking a drug or its delivery mechanism. This set the stage for the pharmaceutical industry to become the most profitable industry in America. For example, Sanofi filed for 74 different patents on its version of insulin, which meant that it could go 37 years without any competition. As of 2014, the three big insulin makers held 19 active patents on their insulin products.

Often the new, patented versions of insulin provide limited benefits to patients, despite their significantly higher prices. However, aggressive marketing campaigns and partnerships with improved delivery devices lead to prescriptions for the new more expensive, and more profitable, products.

A study published in the Internal Medicine edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association found that one in four insulin users (26%) in the U.S. had rationed their insulin use due to high costs; in other high-income countries the rate was only 6.5%. [5] Diabetics who couldn’t afford their insulin have died when they tried to do without or to ration their supply. Many others have endured financial hardships that have required them to use retirement savings, move to cheaper housing, sell possessions, or limit purchases of food and other drugs.

Even for individuals with health insurance, the high price of insulin is problematic because of increased co-payments for drugs and because deductibles they must pay before insurance coverage kicks in have, on average, quadrupled over the last 10 years.

The grassroots organizers of the #insulin4all campaign are working to change U.S. policies and make insulin affordable. Their campaign may prove to be the spark that leads to regulation and negotiation of all drug prices in the U.S. Advocacy is increasing in energy and urgency because diabetics are literally fighting for their lives as insulin makers jack up the price and they don’t see government standing up for them.

The issue of drug prices and particularly insulin prices is, finally, getting increased attention. Congress is holding hearings on insulin prices. Federal and state legislation is being considered. Colorado has passed legislation capping co-payments for insulin. Some advocates have called for nationalizing the insulin market and public manufacturing of generic drugs, including insulin.

I urge you to contact your state and federal elected representatives and to ask them to pass legislation to control the price of insulin and stop price gouging by the drug industry.

[1]      Shure, N., 6/24/19, “The insulin racket,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/article/insulin-racket)

[2]      Silverman, E., 6/22/19, “Insulin rationing high in US, survey finds,” The Boston Globe

[3]      Silverman, E., 6/22/19, see above

[4]      Shure, N., 6/24/19, see above

[5]      Silverman, E., 6/22/19, see above

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