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Eli Lilly rolling out half-price insulin. Diabetics say it's not enough

Drug maker cutting price of popular insulin drug

Eli Lilly said it plans to roll out a half-price version of its Humalog insulin, an effort that comes amid rising scrutiny and criticism over the surging cost of the life-saving medication.

The price of the new medication, called Lispro, will be $137.35 for one vial, or about half the current Humalog list price, Eli Lilly said in a statement. CEO David Ricks said Eli Lilly was rolling out the cheaper insulin to "serve as a bridge" for diabetics until "a more sustainable model is achieved."

But diabetics say the measure doesn't go far enough, pointing out that patients who require insulin in other countries pay much less than even $137.35 per vial for the same brand names. 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. 

The combination of high costs, financial distress among diabetics and, in some cases, deadly outcomes for patients who rationed their insulin have prompted more lawmakers to question the rising price of insulin.

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The move by Eli Lilly doesn't solve the underlying issues facing diabetics who need insulin to survive, said Laura Marston, an independent advocate for lower insulin prices and an attorney.

"I think it's a PR stunt to deflect from rising list prices," Marston said. "I'd like to see it at a maximum of 1996 pricing, which was $21 a vial, plus inflation, which would put it at $30 or $32 a vial. That's what we are pushing for."

The lower-cost version of Humalog "seems like not even a baby step," she added.

The list price of insulin is "still too high" even at $137.35 per vial, said Patients For Affordable Drugs, a patient organization focused on lowering drug prices, in a statement. 

Diabetes, a disease in which the body fails to properly regulate blood sugar, affects 30 million -- or almost one in 10 -- Americans. 

"Last thing I could afford"

The decision to price the new Humalog version at $137.35 feels personal for Marston, who said the price reflects what the medication sold for in 2012, when her law firm shut down and she found herself without insurance. 

"When I went to the pharmacy, they told me a vial of Humalog was $140," she recalls. 

But even as an attorney, she said she found the cost prohibitive. She said she needed a vial of Humalog every week, but soon had to make financial cutbacks to afford the medication that she needs to keep herself alive as a Type 1 diabetic.

"I had to cash out my 401k, sell everything I owned, borrow from my parents' retirement fund extensively," she said. "When you do not have insurance, the last thing I could afford was a $140 a vial."

Aiming for relief

Eli Lilly, asked about the criticism from diabetics and advocates that the new product is still too expensive, said the lower cost insulin, called Lispro, "can be an important option for people."

"Approximately 95 percent of people who use Humalog pay less than $100 a month for their prescription, but some people are still paying too much because of their insurance designs," the company said in an emailed statement. "Lilly Insulin Lispro can provide some relief for people who are uninsured, in high deductible plans, or in the coverage gap of Medicare Part D until a more sustainable reimbursement model is achieved."

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Under scrutiny

The decision comes amid rising scrutiny from lawmakers, patient advocates and policy experts about the rising cost of insulin and other prescription medications.

The Senate finance committee last month sent a letter to Eli Lilly's Ricks, asking for information about its insulin pricing before March 8. It noted that the taxpayer-funded healthcare programs Medicare and Medicaid together are paying more than $1 billion annually to buy insulin.

"When one insulin product costs the taxpayer more than $1 billion in one year, the American people ought to know how the company prices its products," the letter said.

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