Remember Daraprim? How about EpiPens? Well, now add insulin to your list of long-used, life-saving drugs that manufacturers appear willing to price-gouge for, even if it's a life-or-death matter.
Some Minnesota legislators, health professionals and people directly impacted by skyrocketing insulin prices met to discuss the issue this week and how to make sure people get these common drugs without going broke — or worse, dying.
Yes, that's happened.
As the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported, Alec Smith died because he could not afford a $1,300 bill to refill his insulin. As his mother told those gathered Tuesday, Smith was trying to stretch his remaining medication until his next paycheck. However, he died in 2017 from diabetic ketoacidosis, a serious condition that can be prevented with insulin.
Insulin — which people with Type 1 diabetes need regularly to survive — has skyrocketed in the past 10 years.
Kaiser Health News reports the cost tripled from 2002 to 2013 and has doubled in the past five years. The list price is over $300 for a single vial of medicine, and most patients need multiple vials every month.
With more than 300,000 Minnesota adults diagnosed with diabetes, it's no wonder Attorney General Lori Swanson in October sued three insulin manufacturers, alleging they price-gouged.
Meanwhile, Minnesota's senior U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar has added her voice to others in Congress urging action. And this week some Minnesota legislators said they would look into the issue at the state level when the 2019 session convenes Jan. 8.
The key question is what can be done?
President Donald Trump started his presidency with some tough talk on lowering drug prices and increasing transparency. However, not much has come to fruition.
Similarly, Congress has taken little substantive action, even amid increasing protests from consumers. Sure, hearings were held in the Senate recently. But again, helpful changes seem far from imminent.
One potential course of action is to increase supply, perhaps through generic drug options. There are two challenges there.
First, steps like that were taken when EpiPen prices spiked. However, the Chicago Sun-Times reported just this week the generic competitor to EpiPens still cost $300 each.
Second, as more people are diagnosed with diabetes, researchers are projecting a global insulin shortage is possible by 2030. So is increasing supply enough to lower prices even possible?
And there is the Daraprim approach. Remember when Martin Shkreli bought a pharmaceutical company and raised the price of the important AIDS drug from $13.50 a pill to $750 a pill three years ago? Shkreli is in jail now for securities fraud. As of 2016, the pills, though, still cost $750 each.
Finally, there is always the option of government-mandated pricing. Such a heavy-handed strategy is almost always a bad idea. Then again, diabetes not properly treated can lead to blindness, kidney failure, heart problems, amputations and — yes — death.
How much does America have to spend (literally) dealing with those outcomes before the heavy hand of government does what market conditions today apparently cannot — stop price-gouging on common, long-used, life-saving drugs?