Insulin: From Pennies to Paychecks

Posted at 1:30 PM on Jan 19, 2022


cori image.jpegby Lauren Reynolds and Devika Shenoy, President, NSAC

The 2020 National Diabetes Statistics Report revealed striking data—approximately 1 in 10 Americans are diagnosed with diabetes and 1 in 3 Americans are diagnosed as pre-diabetic. Despite the prevalence of the disease, the cost of insulin, a compound with high therapeutic value to diabetic patients, is too often beyond their reach. The per unit price of insulin is 900% higher in the U.S. than in Canada. Unlike in other countries, the price of insulin has increased astronomically. For example, a vial of insulin that cost $21 in 1996, was $275 in 2017. The prices alone are enough to anger health justice advocates, but the story of insulin provides insight into the leading role of pharmaceutical companies in causing our drug pricing crisis. 

When insulin was discovered by three researchers at the University of Toronto in the 1920s, the patent was sold for $3, amounting to $1 for each of the three scientists. Dr. Frederick Banting, Dr. Charles Best, and Dr. James Collip shared their scientific breakthroughs with the world for pennies, only for the pharmaceutical industry (yes, Eli Lilly, we are talking about you) to spend years price gouging, causing millions to financially and often physically suffer from diabetes. In 2017, the cost of insulin and other medications related to diabetes complications led it to become the most expensive chronic disease in the U.S., costing Americans $357 million

Americans suffering from diabetes are, thus, forced to make serious sacrifices to safeguard their own health. We interviewed Cori*—a patient who, like many Americans, struggles with the cost of insulin—in order to learn more about how this crisis has impacted individuals’ lives. 

Cori, who has been dealing with Type I diabetes since her childhood, attends medical school. During her youth, she felt extreme guilt watching as her family shouldered the burden of the cost of insulin. The option of an insulin pump or any of the technology being developed was out of the question, as the simple cost of insulin proved to be a difficult challenge to face. 

The high cost of insulin, laboratory work, clinic visits: a plethora of healthcare costs related to her diabetes hindered Cori’s access to quality healthcare. The financial toll of living with diabetes placed a serious burden on Cori and her family—one that the government has thus far failed to address. This led Cori to restrict carbohydrates in an effort to reduce her need for insulin. Cori felt that such extreme actions were necessary to protect the financial stability of her family. In view of the reality that millions of Americans face similar challenges to Cori and her family, our American healthcare system paints a dystopian picture. 

No child should feel like a burden to their parents, and no one should be facing the unnecessary and overwhelming cost of medical care within this country. Cori, a direct victim of the high costs of prescription drug medications in the U.S., believes the problem could be mitigated through government negotiating drug prices, universal healthcare, and safe personal importation of prescription drugs. As someone who was forced to create an unhealthy solution to the burden of insulin cost, Cori believes that legislation has the “power to transform the disease into one that is manageable—with a much different prognosis.” 

Insulin is only one of many medications that places a financial burden on our households. We encourage all Americans to take action and contact their representatives today. 

JOIN OUR ADVOCACY: Your voice matters: find your elected officials here by inputting your Zip Code. Additionally, you can find an advocacy toolkit that members of our Prescription Justice National Student Advocacy Committee (NSAC) have put together here.     

*Note: Cori’s real name has been changed in order to protect her identity. 

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