Choosing between medicine or food on the table is a horrible dilemma many diabetics are facing today, as the cost of insulin becomes unaffordable. Patients who ration their medications end up in the hospital or even face death, doctors say.
On the surface their lives may look picture perfect, but underneath, Jennifer Brown and Chloe Grill share a similar struggle. Both are diabetics who have been hit hard by the dramatic, unexplained rise in the cost of insulin.
“What used to be $50 a vial is now $300,” explains Brown. Even with insurance, they have high deductibles. Brown spends about $900 a month out of pocket on insulin, plus money for all the supplies she needs.
“This month my test strips have gone up $20,” says Grill. Her insulin runs $300 a month out of pocket. For these young mothers, insulin in not an option. Without it, they will die.
Insulin is now more expensive than gold. “[Insulin] is 100 years old and the patent sold for dollars,” remarks Brown. For the estimated 26 to 30 million people living with diabetes, buying the life-saving medicine has become a monthly struggle.
Grill tells us friends trade and share supplies, helping each other get by. “Some of them had to go to the hospital because they’ve run out too soon and can’t make it to the next paycheck,” she explains.
News of deaths around the country due to the lack of insulin is raising alarm. Congress is calling on the three top manufacturers to explain pricing and why Americans pay so much more than diabetics in other countries. Both the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) and the Senate Committee on Finance have several upcoming hearings on this issue.
“These same companies sell the same insulin to other countries for a fraction of the price,” says UAB’s Dr. Fernando Ovalle, with the Division of Endocrinology & Diabetes. He says there are cases in the Birmingham metro area where patients have died or ended up in the hospital risking vision loss, kidney failure and heart problems.
According to Dr. Ovalle, along the insulin supply chain from manufacturer to patient, everyone is taking a cut driving up the prices. Some point to the pharmacy benefit managers, known as PBMs, as a major factor in the increase.
“Since they got involved, things got worse. The way they make deals is very secretive,” remarks Dr. Ovalle. Experts are asking for more transparency in how insulin is priced. Estimates are in 10 years, 20 percent of Alabamians will have diabetes. Therefore, the demand for insulin will continue to grow.
We reached out to Alabama’s Congressional Delegation for comment on the crisis. Here are the responses we received:
From Senator Richard Shelby:
â€śThe rising cost of prescription drugs remains a serious concern for many Americans. It is critical that we find solutions to lower overall health care expenditures, ensuring that prescription drugs are reasonably priced. I look forward to working with my colleagues to examine proposals that help address this pressing issue.â€ť
From Senator Doug Jones:
â€śThe sky-rocketing price of insulin is absolutely outrageous and it has to stop. This could have life or death consequences for Alabamians. Right now, I am working with my colleagues on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on legislation to lower out-of-pocket costs for prescription drugs. A number of other congressional committees are finally holding hearings on this issue and I know the Administration is also looking at ways to lower prices through regulatory changes. We all have a responsibility to take action to ensure life-sustaining medicines, especially drugs like insulin that have been available for decades, are affordable for all.â€ť
From Congresswoman Terri Sewell:
â€śFor millions of Americans, access to insulin is a life or death issue. As a member of the Ways and Means Committee and the health subcommittee, I will be working on many policies this year aimed at addressing the rising costs of prescription drugs, including insulin,â€ť Sewell said. â€śAlabamaâ€™s 7th Congressional District has one of the highest rates of insulin-dependent diabetics in the country. For these Alabamians, Congress can â€“ and must â€“ tackle this problem by lowering patient cost-sharing for insulin and expanding access to comprehensive health care for people living with diabetes.â€ť