“Doctor, could you please redo my insulin prescription? The one you gave me is wrong.” My patient’s frustration was obvious over the phone. She was standing at the pharmacy, unable to get her diabetes medication.
We had gone through this just the week before. I’d prescribed her the insulin she’d been on, at the correct dosage, but when she showed up at her pharmacy she learned that her insurance company no longer covered that brand. After a series of phone messages back and forth, I’d redone the prescription with what I’d thought was the correct insulin, but I was apparently wrong. Again.
Between 2002 and 2013, prices tripled for some insulins. Many cost around $300 a vial, without any viable generic alternative. Most patients use two or three vials a month, but others need the equivalent of four. Self-rationing has become common as patients struggle to keep up. In the short term, fluctuating blood sugar levels can lead to confusion, dehydration, coma, even death. In the long term, poorly controlled diabetes is associated with heart attacks, strokes, blindness, amputation and the need for dialysis.
The exorbitant prices confound patients and doctors alike since insulin is nearly a century old now. The pricing is all the more infuriating when one considers that the discoverers of insulin sold the patent for $1 each to ensure that the medication would be affordable. Today the three main manufacturers of insulin are facing a lawsuit accusing them of deceptive pricing schemes, but it could be years before this yields any changes.