She drew the life-saving medication into the syringe, just 10cc of colorless fluid for the everyday low price of, gulp, several hundred dollars. Was that a new chemotherapy, specially designed for her tumor? Was it a “specialty drug,” to treat her multiple sclerosis? Nope. It was insulin, a drug that has been around for decades.
The price of many drugs has been on the rise of late, not just new drugs but many that have been in use for many years. Even the price of some generic drugs is on the rise. In some cases, prices are rising because the number of companies making specific drugs has declined, until there is only one manufacturer left in the market, leading to monopolistic pricing. In other cases, companies have run into problems with their manufacturing processes, causing unexpected shortages. And in infamous cases, greedy CEOs have hiked prices figuring that desperate patients would have little choice but to purchase their products.
Then there’s the case of insulin. No monopoly issue here – three companies manufacturer insulin in the U.S., not a robust marketplace, but one, it would seem, that should put pressure on producers. No major manufacturing problems, either. There has been a steady supply of insulin on the market for more than a half century. And there haven’t been any insulin company executives I know of who have been hustled in front of grand juries lately.
Yet insulin prices are rising to dizzying heights. In 1991, according to a recent study inJAMA, state Medicaid programs typically paid less than $4 for a unit of rapid acting insulin. After accounting for inflation, that price has quintupled in the meantime.
What explains the gravity-defying cost of insulin? I am not an expert on pharmaceutical pricing, but a few factors go a long way to explaining insulin prices. First, the insulin marketplace has been characterized by continual product upgrades. You see, there’s not just one chemical that makes up all insulin products. Instead, insulin treatments are a family of products, each with slightly different chemical makeup that influences things like how quickly the medicine is absorbed into the blood stream. Manufacturers have been toying with insulin molecules since at least 1936, when the manufacturer added protamine to insulin molecules to extend the duration of the chemical’s activity. In the 1960s, companies began synthesizing insulin, rather than harvesting it from pancreatic tissue. In the late 70s, they began producing insulin through genetic engineering.
So when I said that the price of insulin had quintupled over the decades, we have to keep in mind that today’s insulin is not the same as yesterday’s.
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