Ever-increasing costs for lifesaving insulin are starting to fuel desperation among at least a portion of those with Type-1 diabetes.
Earlier this year, drugmakers Eli Lilly and Novo Nordisk boosted their insulin list prices by almost 8 percent. The American Diabetes Association said the average price of insulin nearly tripled between 2002 and 2013.
Prices for insulin have soared recently, with a local physician and a pharmacy official relating anecdotes of diabetics who have become frustrated over an inability to easily locate means of paying for their supply.
Insulin therapy is a necessity for a Type-1 diabetic to stay alive, said Dr. Sherry Zhou, an endocrinologist for Mosaic Life Care.
“For Type-1 diabetes ... that’s life,” she said. “They have to have some access to insulin. ... You die in one or two days” without a regular treatment, she added.
She said the major insulin makers continually conduct research in never-ending bids to remain competitive, eventually leading toward a summit of creating a preeminent product. Costly and lengthy trial runs are needed to ensure there are no health consequences for the users.
Zhou said Type-1 diabetics in the St. Joseph area are fortunate in one sense, in that special prices are obtainable via Mosaic’s participation in the 340B drug discount program, regulated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The program allows certain hospitals and other health-care providers to obtain discounted prices on certain covered outpatient drugs from drug manufacturers. Manufacturers must offer 340B discounts to participating entities to have their drugs covered under Medicaid, according to the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission.
There is a definite need to make the product not just better, but cheaper as well, said Zhou, who has 70 percent of her patients on insulin.
The availability of 340B services locally doesn’t mean there aren’t hard cases of affording insulin. Zhou said she’s known of some patients who are still short of making their portion of the payments.
Pat Dunn, who assists diabetic customers at Rogers Pharmacy in St. Joseph with purchases of medical equipment, also has heard about the difficulty of paying for insulin. An Iowa woman came to the business and found out she was paying $2,100 for her insulin.
“We were almost crying. ... It isn’t anything we do.”
The pharmacy was able to tell the woman about the 340B program, which allowed her to pay $66.31 for a three-month supply. Although Rogers Pharmacy does not dispense insulin, it can routinely relay information on good prices for the hormone, he added.
“We’ve been doing it for years,” Dunn said. “Unfortunately, there’s been a lot of cutbacks in the insurance industry,” he added of one cause for the expense, saying insulin costs are embroiled in an ebb-and-flow pattern.
“I think we compare better,” he said of the region’s insulin prices versus the rest of the nation. “That’s the world we live in.”
Rep. Jim Neely, R-Cameron, himself a physician, is exasperated over exorbitant insulin costs.
“I’ve never seen it so tough in my life,” he said, blaming the health-insurance industry as among those involved in setting high prices. “It seems like a new challenge every month. ... It’s a complicated mess.”
Neely advocates action on the federal level to help resolve the spiraling prices. He’s no longer able to work with pharmacies to assist any of his diabetic patients with easing the strain.
“That’s over,” he said.
In a January report to the Missouri General Assembly, the MO HealthNet Division and the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services estimated that almost 540,000 state residents in 2015 had doctor-diagnosed diabetes.