More drug companies cut insulin prices this week. NPR’s Scott Simon talks with Kaiser Health News’ Bram Sable-Smith about what this means for patients.
SCOTT SIMON, host.
More good news for the millions of people who need insulin to stay alive. Novo Nordisk and Sanofi announced that they are lowering their list prices for insulin products. This follows a similar decision by Eli Lilly. Bram Sable-Smith from Kaiser Health News joins us. Bram, thank you so much for being with us.
BRAME SABLE-SMITH, BYLINE. Thank you for me.
SIMON: Drug companies are more famous for raising the price of insulin. And there are many people left fighting for it. How important is this week’s price cut news?
SABLE-SMITH. That’s pretty significant, Scott. I mean, these three drugmakers make 90% of the country’s insulin supply. And the really important thing here is that they reduce the insulin roll. So you can think of it like the sticker price of a car. Thus, many of the proposed solutions to high insulin prices in recent years have focused on limiting insurance copayments. But it’s only really effective if you have insurance. People who are uninsured are most vulnerable when list prices are high. And the list prices of insulin have increased more than 1000% in the last 30 years. And when people can’t afford that price, it becomes dangerous and even deadly.
SIMON: Over the years of covering insulin prices, Bram, you’ve reported a number of heartbreaking stories. And I remember one woman in particular who lost her 26-year-old son because she couldn’t afford insulin.
SABLE-SMITH: Right. Her name is Nicole Smith-Holt. Her son, Alec, aged out of his insurance when he turned 26. And after shopping around, she decided her cheapest option would be to just go uninsured and pay for insulin out of pocket. But when it came time to buy his first stock, he couldn’t afford it. So she tried to stretch out the insulin she had until payday. It’s something called rationalization. But he didn’t make it and he died. Nicole has since become a tireless activist, and Alec’s story is just one example. There are a number of people who have died from their insulin dose. And in fact, a recent study found that more than a million Americans ration their own insulin. That’s 16% of insulin users. And cost is a really big factor in that.
SIMON: Do you think these stories have had an impact?
SABLE-SMITH. Yeah, I mean, I think they certainly had an impact. There has been a really powerful grassroots movement with people like Nicole Smith-Holt calling for lower insulin prices. And the pharmaceutical companies have responded to that pressure in the past. So, for example, they stopped raising the price of insulin. They have developed new patient assistance programs to help people afford it. And now there is also considerable political pressure. You may remember President Biden in this very recent speech calling for insulin co-pays for everyone. But here, too, I would not ignore the motive of money.
So, you know, California recently announced that it was going to manufacture its own insulin to regulate prices. Civica, a nonprofit pharmaceutical company, plans to bring the low-cost insulin to market next year. Mark Cuban’s company wants to sell generic insulin cheaply. So there’s pressure in the market that hasn’t been there before. And there’s another thing: the upcoming regulatory change passed in the American Rescue Plan, where in 2024, drugmakers will actually have to start paying a penalty to Medicaid for drugs like insulin that have had skyrocketing prices. These price drops will help avoid that penalty.
SIMON: You mentioned calls to lower insulin prices. Do these voluntary declines make efforts to lower insulin prices unnecessary?
SABLE-SMITH. Grassroots activists say federal action is still needed. And Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Corey Bush recently introduced a bill to cap the list price of insulin at $20 per vial. And remember that the price reductions announced by these drug manufacturers are voluntary. So such federal action would prevent the price from rising again.
SIMON: Bram Sale-Smith – Kaiser Health News – thanks so much for being with us.
SABLE-SMITH: Thanks for having me.
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