After outcry from diabetic patients, lawmakers, and healthcare advocacy groups, Eli Lilly and Co., one of the United States’ largest drug manufacturers, responded to the cries by releasing a generic version of their popular insulin Humalog. This new insulin is called Insulin Lispro and will be roughly half the price of Humalog. But will that be enough of a price cut to save lives?
Humalog vs. Insulin Lispro
Between 2001 and 2015, Humalog prices rose from $35 to $234, a 585 percent increase. These high prices rake in about $3 billion in profits each year. The current price of a single vial of Humalog is approximately $300 in 2019.
Eli Lilly cuts that price in half with Insulin Lispro, which will cost $137.35 for a single vial. Insulin Lispro will also be available in a pen option (KwikPens) for $265.20 for a five-pack. However, according to Patients for Affordable Drugs, even a single vial priced at $137.37 is still too high and unattainable for a drug that’s been around for 100 years.
Soaring insulin prices
Over the past 20 years, insulin prices have climbed an astounding 1,123 percent. Insulin prices tripled between 2002 and 2013, and then doubled again within the following five years. With price tags this high, it leaves many people with diabetes rationing their insulin to make it last longer, a dangerous practice that has resulted in several people whose deaths made national headlines.
One reason for these eye-popping prices is pharmacy benefit manager (PBM) kickbacks or rebates. When an insurance company guarantees that a drug will be covered by certain plans, the drug manufacturer pays them an undisclosed amount of money in return. This incentivizes both parties to keep prices (and profits) high and out of reach for some of the country’s most vulnerable people.
Alex Azar, Secretary of Health and Human Services and former Eli Lilly executive, proposed ending the elaborate PBM kickback system in order to reduce prescription prices and save lives. Of all the proposals to bring down prescription drug prices proposed by the Trump administration, this one seems to be the most promising.
Action from lawmakers
In February, Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) launched an investigation into the rising insulin prices at Eli Lilly on behalf of the Senate Finance Committee. In the letter, the senators noted that taxpayer-funded healthcare programs like Medicare and Medicaid are paying more than $1 billion every year to receive this life-sustaining drug. “When one insulin product costs the taxpayer more than $1 billion in one year,” the letter said, “the American people ought to know how the company prices its products.”
Response from Eli Lilly
David Ricks, Eli Lilly chairman and CEO, said this measure would not make a long-term difference in helping Americans better afford prescription drugs. “While this change is a step in the right direction,” he said, “all of us in the health care community must do more to fix the problem of a high out-of-pocket costs for Americans living with chronic conditions. We hope our announcement is a catalyst for positive change in the U.S. health system.”
Senators Grassley and Wyden have not yet responded to the Eli Lilly response.