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Two more drug companies joined Eli Lilly in lowering the cost of insulin


More good news for the millions of people who need insulin to stay alive. Novo Nordisk and Sanofi announced they are lowering their list prices for insulin products. This follows a similar decision by Eli Lilly. Bram Sable-Smith from Kaiser Health News joins us. Bram, thanks so much for being with us.

BRAM SABLE-SMITH, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Drug companies have been better known for increasing the price of insulin. And a lot of people have been left struggling to afford it. How significant is the news of this week's price reductions?

SABLE-SMITH: It's quite significant, Scott. I mean, these three drugmakers produce something like 90% of the country's insulin supply. And what's really important here is that they're reducing the list price of insulin. So you can kind of think of that like the sticker price on a car. So many of the proposed solutions for high insulin prices in recent years have centered on capping insurance co-payments. But that's really only effective if you have insurance. People who are uninsured are the most vulnerable when list prices are high. And insulin list prices rose over 1,000% in the past 30 years. And when people can't afford that price tag, that's what becomes dangerous and even deadly.

SIMON: Over the years of covering insulin prices, Bram, you have reported on a number of heartbreaking cases. And I recall especially one woman who lost her 26-year-old son because he couldn't afford insulin.

SABLE-SMITH: That's right. Her name is Nicole Smith-Holt. Her son Alec was aging off of her insurance when he turned 26. And after shopping around, he decided his cheapest option was actually going to be to just go uninsured and pay out-of-pocket for his insulin. But when it came to buy his first supply, he couldn't afford it. So he tried to stretch out the insulin that he did have until payday. That's something called rationing. But he didn't make it, and he died. Nicole has become a tireless activist since then, and Alec's story is just one example. There have been a number of people who have died from rationing their insulin. And actually, a recent study found that over a million Americans have rationed their own insulin. That's 16% of insulin users. And cost is the really big factor in that.

SIMON: Do you think these stories had an effect?

SABLE-SMITH: Yeah, I mean, I think they certainly did have an impact. There's been a really strong grassroots movement with people like Nicole Smith-Holt who are calling for lower insulin prices. And pharmaceutical companies have responded to that pressure in the past. So, for instance, they stopped raising the price of insulin. They developed new patient assistance programs to help people afford it. And there's significant political pressure now, too. You'll probably remember President Biden just in this recent State of the Union address actually called for capping insulin copays for everyone. But I wouldn't overlook the money motivator here, as well.

So, you know, California has recently announced it's going to manufacture its own insulin to address prices. The nonprofit drugmaker Civica plans to bring a low-cost insulin to market next year. Mark Cuban's company wants to sell generic insulin for cheap. So there's pressure in the marketplace that hasn't been there before right now. And there's also just one more thing, an upcoming regulatory change that was passed in the American Rescue Plan, where in 2024, drugmakers are actually going to have to start paying a penalty to Medicaid for drugs like insulin that have had steep price increases. These price drops will help avoid that penalty.

SIMON: You mentioned calls to cap insulin prices. Do these voluntary drops make the effort to cap insulin prices unnecessary?

SABLE-SMITH: Grassroots activists say federal action is still needed. And Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Cori Bush recently introduced a bill to cap the list price of insulin at $20 per vial. And remember, the price reductions that have been announced by these drugmakers are voluntary. So this kind of federal action would prevent the price from going back up again.

SIMON: Bram Sable-Smith - Kaiser Health News - thanks so much for being with us.

SABLE-SMITH: Thanks for having me.


Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.