Amid the notoriously spiraling prices of medication in the US, there is one glimmer of hope: Walmart has announced that they are launching a private brand analog insulin which could cost people with diabetes up to 75 percent less than their current medication.
Nearly one in nine Americans have diabetes, and that percentage is increasing every year. At the same time, the price of insulin has soared, leaving many patients having to choose between life-saving medication and basic amenities – or worse: simply going without.
It doesn’t have to be like this: the US is actually a major outlier. American insulin costs more than six times the price of Canadian insulin, and nearly nine times the price of UK insulin. It costs nearly 28 times the price of Turkish insulin.
“We have patients telling us they are paying more for their insulin than their mortgage,” endocrinologist Dr Irl Hirsch told WTAE in 2017.
“We know many people with diabetes struggle to manage the financial burden of this condition, and we are focused on helping by providing affordable solutions,” Dr Cheryl Pegus, executive vice president of Walmart Health & Wellness, said in a statement. “We also know this is a condition that disproportionately impacts underserved populations.”
Walmart already sells low-cost insulin for around $25, but it is an older version which doctors say is less effective than analog insulin. The new type, which will cost about $73 per vial, represents Walmart’s “commitment to [improving] access and lowering cost of care,” said Pegus.
Insulin has become the poster child for the US’s out-of-control healthcare costs, increasing in price at more than 40 times the US Consumer Price Index inflation rate. This is darkly ironic: when insulin was first discovered in 1923, two of the four scientists involved declined to be named on the patent, feeling that to profit from a vital medicine would break the Hippocratic Oath (while the other two discoverers were named on the patent, they sold all rights to the University of Toronto for a single dollar).
But these days, the drug is virtually monopolized by just three pharmaceutical manufacturers: Eli Lilly, Novo Nordisk, and Sanofi. And when one company raises prices, they all do.
“If three companies seized control of the market for water globally and raised the prices 310 percent over 10 years there would be pitchforks at the gate,” David Mitchell, founder of nonprofit group Patients For Affordable Drugs, told NBC in 2019. “Insulin is like water for people with diabetes.”
While $73 per vial is still much higher than patients pay over the border in Canada (or don’t pay in the UK), the new analog insulin from Walmart should hopefully see many more Americans able to treat their diabetes. Remember: a body that needs insulin and doesn’t get it will soon find its blood turning to acid, its brain getting confused, and its heart rate increasing. Eventually, it will enter a coma and die.
“It’s really scary knowing that just to live day by day I always need insulin and companies are making profit over death,” Dan Hart, who has diabetes, told The Guardian last year. “I try to not think about it, but there’s not one day I don’t.”