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Eli Lilly's half-price insulin goes on sale, but critics say it's still too costly

Insulin makers grilled on price surges

A half-price version of Eli Lilly's popular Humalog insulin is now on sale, following the company's promise in March to offer diabetics a more affordable option amid fierce criticism of soaring prices for the life-saving medication.

Lilly, one of the three top insulin makers, said Wednesday that it has begun selling its own generic version of Humalog U-100 under the chemical name insulin lispro. The Indianapolis drugmaker said insulin lispro will cost $137.35 per vial, or $265.20 for a package of five KwikPens, an easier-to-inject option. 

Diabetics and critics say the measure falls short, given that patients who require insulin outside the U.S. pay far less than the $137.35 per vial price for lispro. In the U.S., the cost of insulin for Type 1 diabetics has almost doubled over a five-year period, prompting some to cut back on their medication. 

"Reducing the price by 50% for some people is still not acceptable," wrote Nicole Smith-Holt on Twitter. 

Smith-Holt, whose diabetic son died after he wasn't able to afford his insulin, added, "The good people living in the U.S. should be paying exactly what everyone else in the world is paying for the same product."

Patients For Affordable Drugs, a patient organization focused on lowering drug prices, has also called the half-price version of Humalog "still too high." A diabetic in the U.S. pays about $3700 for a three-month supply of insulin, which costs just $600 in Mexico, according to Kaiser Health News. Even at half the $3700 cost -- $1,850 -- U.S. patients are still paying much more than diabetics in other countries.

List price for Humalog

Those figures are half the list price Lilly charges for Humalog. The fast-acting insulin, which diabetics inject shortly before each meal, is used by about 700,000 Americans.

Lilly said the biggest savings will go to patients who are uninsured, have high-deductible health insurance or have Medicare Part D plans.

Insurers generally pay drugmakers far less than the list price, but many patients must pay a percentage of the list price or the full amount until they meet their health plan's annual deductible.

Because insulin lispro is identical to Humalog, pharmacists will be able to substitute the half-price generic. However, Lilly noted that some patients will still pay less for Humalog than insulin lispro, depending on their insurance plan.

Patients with diabetes don't produce enough insulin to control their blood sugar, or their body uses insulin in efficiently, forcing them to inject the hormone, usually several times a day.

The average insulin price nearly tripled from 2002 through 2013, and prices have risen 10% or more a year since then, forcing many diabetics to ration their insulin. Some have ended up in hospitals and a few have died as a result, which has led to congressional hearings on the issue.