On May 22, 2019, Colorado became the first state to cap insulin copays at $100 for diabetics with health insurance. While this move was widely applauded by the public- especially by the over 30 million Americans who live with the life-threatening health condition- it reveals a bigger problem. Insulin prices have spiraled out of control due to the unchecked greed of pharmaceutical companies.
It’s highly likely that you know someone with diabetes. Nearly 10% of all Americans have the disease, which impedes the uptake of glucose (blood sugar) into the body’s cells. When you eat food- let’s say, a piece of pizza from Imports- your pancreas secretes the hormone insulin to break down that food into usable energy. Diabetics have a malfunctioning pancreas, with Type 1 (also known as juvenile diabetes) producing none at all, and Type 2 suffering from the development of insulin resistance due to environmental/lifestyle factors. Without enough insulin, you can’t gain energy from the pizza that your body needs to survive. Instead, sugar remains in the bloodstream and accumulates, causing the blood to turn acidic. This leads to diabetic ketoacidosis, which can be fatal.
And it has been fatal. Alec Smith, an uninsured 24-year-old from Minnesota, died recently because he couldn’t afford the $1,300 worth of insulin he needed to survive. He was forced to resort to insulin rationing- which is extremely dangerous- to stretch his supply long enough to get his next paycheck. He passed away four days before he could receive it.
Tragic stories like Alec’s are why more and more Americans have been crossing the border in order to access reasonably priced insulin. Recently, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders made headlines when he travelled north with diabetic Americans, from Detroit, Michigan to Windsor, Ontario, to purchase the drug for about one-tenth of the price. This begs the question: how, and why, has the American government and medical system so badly failed its people?
Simply put, pharmaceutical companies drive up prices on insulin because, well, they can. America’s free-market approach to pharmaceuticals has paved the way to uninhibited greed. We put relatively minimal regulations upon insulin manufacturers as opposed to other developed nations; England, for example, has a government agency that sets a maximum price for the drug. Furthermore, three major insulin companies- Eli Lilly, Novo Nordisk and Sanofi- have monopolized 90% of global sales. This lack of competition has allowed them to drive prices up to an outrageous level. The “big three” are also active in the political realm. Novo Nordisk, for instance, spent $3.2 million lobbying Congress in 2017. By ensuring that they have legislative support from these politicians, they keep their monopoly secure, and with it, their control over prices. The cost for a vial of Novo Nordisk’s Levemir, a long-acting insulin, went from $144.80 in 2012 to $335.70 in January 2018. The vial lasts for about a month. This is forcing millions of men, women, and children to make literal life-or-death decisions.
In the United States of America- the nation with the highest GDP in the world- nobody should die from a drug that is readily available, cheap to manufacture, and necessary for the survival of millions. In this prosperous nation that strives to uphold justice, nobody should die because they are simply too poor to live.
Information from VICE, US News, T1International, Fortune