Are Insulin Price Drops Reason for Praise?

a young Black woman injects herself with insulin in the upper arm

It’s no secret that pharmaceutical companies do everything they can to make a profit. From allergy medications to life-saving products, the prices of many medications seem to be increasing every day. For some people, this really is a matter of life or death.

In 2017, a group of diabetic consumers took the makers of insulin—Eli Lilly, Sanofi, and Novo Nordisk—otherwise known as the Big Three, to court. Their ongoing case, filed in United States District Court of New Jersey, calls these companies out for price-gauging.

As a result of this lawsuit and increasing awareness and demand from the public, companies like Eli Lilly have begun making changes before a verdict has been reached.

In March 2023, Eli Lilly cut the price of their insulin by nearly 70%, with a price cap set at $35 per month for customers with insurance. Eli Lilly isn’t the first company to do this. Express Scripts, a subsidiary of Cigna, launched a program to place a $25 price cap on insulin.

But it’s too little too late. These companies have already made billions of dollars by forcing people — many with limited economic resources — to pay thousands of dollars each year for a drug they cannot live without.

“Pharmaceutical companies have tripled the cost of insulin over the last decade.”

These latest moves to make insulin affordable are likely a maneuver to save face, and to skirt potentially tougher penalties from the court in their ongoing lawsuits.

Too Little, Too Late

No one denies that reduced insulin prices are a good thing. Patients relying on insulin have paid far too much for far too long. However, think twice before lavishing too much praise on Eli Lilly or Express Scripts.

Hundreds of thousands of people have already suffered extreme losses and feel these changes have come far too late.

According to the American Diabetes Association, pharmaceutical companies have tripled the cost of insulin over the last decade. With over 37 million diabetics in the United States, diabetes is the seventh leading cause of deaths and costs Americans over $300 billion in medical expenses every year.

According to a 2015 study conducted by Yale University, the cost of insulin has been costing nearly 14% of all insulin users more than 40% of their incomes.

“For nearly 980,000 Americans, almost half of their income has been dedicated to only one medication.”

Because of this, thousands of patients are forced to ration their insulin intake— a decision that frequently proves to be fatal.

For families who have suffered the loss of their parents, children, or spouses because of increased prices, the change in the price of insulin is simply not enough. Calls for government intervention are increasing steadily while Big Pharma scrambles to appease the American people. The Big Three may have begun to retreat from their overt greed, but they’re only doing it because of public rage and the threat of even bigger losses from lawsuits.

In other words, this is not a new game. Pharmaceutical and other powerful corporations do whatever they can get by with doing until they get caught and are forced to be held accountable. We’ve seen this with numerous defective drugs and dangerous products.

What can be done?

To begin, we could start with the very laws that allow insulin companies to overcharge in the first place.

As the price of insulin has continued to rise in the United States, every other developed country in the world has successfully prevented insulin producers from overcharging consumers.

In the UK, for example, the Department of Health has created the Pharmaceutical Price Regulation Scheme (PPRS) to set a price cap on prescription drugs, including insulin.

When a pharmaceutical company develops a drug and decides to sell it in the UK, the PPRS decides the maximum price that drug can be sold for on the market. As a result, the National Health Service (NHS) can provide the public with prescription drugs at an affordable price. These types of programs have been established around the world.

Except not in the U.S.

Here in the United States, drug companies have tremendous power. It is difficult for a politician to rise through the ranks without the backing of big industries, including Big Pharma. That’s the primary reason why healthcare reform has not yet happened.

Unless people like you and me take a stand, drug companies have free reign to continue charging whatever amount they would like for the products so many people rely on to stay alive.

As of 2023, the Big Three continue to be the only companies supplying insulin to the American insulin market. In fact, no other companies provide insulin in the United States.

In addition, there are no true generic forms of insulin in the U.S. That’s because insulin makers continue to make tweaks to their formulas — some improvements and some not — that allow them to extend their patents and avoid competition.

Our Big Pharma-friendly laws allow this to happen, even though it hurts (and sometimes even kills) Americans.

As a result of this monopoly, the United States makes up about 50% of the global insulin-related revenue despite having only about 15% of the insulin market.

To American consumers, this figure should be preposterous. Drug companies have been making a life-saving product available only to those who can afford it.

These companies take advantage of our free-market system at the expense of the American people. Even with price reductions, these companies continue to bring in massive profits while those who rely on them are forced to pay more to fight for their lives.

Standing Up to Create Change

Using the legal system is often the only way to hold corporations accountable when they take advantage of those who need them most.

In the United States District Court of New Jersey, the plaintiffs allege that the Big Three have not only used their power to maintain the unfair prices of insulin, but that they have increased that price by 150% over a span of five years.

Those lawsuits have not yet been resolved. The back-stepping that insulin companies are now doing very well may be an effort to avoid hundreds of millions of dollars or more in punitive damages that would have otherwise been awarded to plaintiffs.

Until justice is served for the families who have lost their loved ones and the price of insulin is affordable for all that need it, the Big Three will attempt to justify their actions. Now, it’s up to the justice system — and to each of us — to hold them accountable and put an end to their greedy practices.