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New insulin price plans from pharmaceutical giants Sanofi, Eli Lilly

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Insulin is a decades-old, life-sustaining medicine.

And yet prices are so high that Americans with diabetes have been forced to take desperate measures, including rationing the drug.

This has been a problem for years. But the outcry has heated up lately, with lawmakers repeatedly — and increasingly forcefully— asking drug companies and other healthcare players at congressional hearings why insulin is so expensive.

“I don’t know how you people sleep at night,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois told healthcare executives at a Wednesday congressional hearing about insulin prices. “Your days are numbered.”

Companies have been forced to respond. They have announced a variety of new programs aimed at limiting how much patients pay out of their own wallets.

These measures have attracted criticism as being “PR stunts,” though, because they apply only in specific circumstances, or for specific products. Six million Americans rely on insulin each day, according to the American Diabetes Association.

And none of the three big companies that make insulin have simply lowered prices.

New insulin programs announced lately include:

  • The drugmaker Sanofi will, starting in June, make up to 10 boxes of its insulin pens or vials available each month for $99. This program was first put in place a year ago, but then it got patients just one vial of insulin or box of pens for $99-$149. The expanded program is intended for anyone paying high prices out-of-pocket, and there is no income eligibility requirement, Sanofi said.
  • The health company Express Scripts is capping how much people with diabetes pay for insulin at just $25 a month. The patient’s employer has to both contract with Express Scripts and opt in to the program.
  • Drug company Eli Lilly is making a generic version of its insulin and one of the most commonly-used types, Humalog, available for $137.35 a vial or $265.20 for a box of five pens — half the price of the brand name.
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