In 1922, 14-year-old Leonard Thompson didn’t have much time left. Weak and frail at 65 pounds, his doctors put him on a near-starvation diet in hopes of countering the Type 1 diabetes ravaging his body. His parents watched their son wither away in a diabetic coma, knowing the disease was a death sentence. With nothing left to lose, they offered their son as a test subject for a new medication called insulin, devised by Canadian scientists Frederick Banting and Charles Best. After being injected with it, Thompson immediately awoke from his coma at full health.
Banting’s discovery of insulin bagged him the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1923. He subsequently sold the patent to the University of Toronto for a single Canadian dollar, believing that everyone in need of his medication should be able to afford it. But Banting’s heroic selflessness soon gave way to corporate greed in the modern-day, as the cost of insulin has skyrocketed to an absurd $450 per month as of 2016, according to The New York Times. This has doubled from the monthly price of $234 in 2012, and it seems that prices aren’t going down any time soon. The CDC reported that over 30 million Americans have diabetes or prediabetes, and it’s time that insulin prices were lowered so that expenses don’t matter when someone’s life is at stake.
To understand the importance of insulin, one must understand the disease it neutralizes. According to the NIH, diabetes is when an individual’s blood glucose, the energy that comes from food, is too high. The body’s pancreas produces a hormone called insulin, which stores glucose in the cells that convert it to energy. Without insulin, the glucose stays in the body, often resulting in severe health problems.
Commonly broken into two types, Type 1 diabetes is when the immune system attacks the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. The far more common Type 2 diabetes is when the pancreas is still capable of producing insulin, yet the body resists its effects.
Forbes mentions that during his run for office, President Trump vowed to lower the costs of overpriced pharmaceutical drugs. A recent report from whitehouse.gov shows prices have generally fallen in recent years; however, this doesn’t include the cost of insulin. Because of this, many diabetics have taken to ordering vials from more agreeable Canadian pharmacies, according to AJMC. The site goes on to mention that the same vial of Humalog, a brand of insulin, costs nearly $300 in America while only costing a mere $32 in Canada due to the country’s price controls on pharmaceuticals.
A JAMA Network study demonstrated that, because of these outlandish prices, one in four diabetic Americans is underusing or skipping out on life-saving doses. This has resulted in the deaths of several underpaid Americans, an example being Alec Raeshawn Smith. NPR states that Smith was diagnosed with diabetes at the age of 24 back in 2015. However, he had to pay a ludicrous $1,000 a month to keep his disease in check while only earning around $3,000 a month from his job as a restaurant manager. Having been forced to ration his costly insulin, Smith died in his apartment two years after his diagnosis, his empty insulin pen within reach.
According to Vox, insulin-related tragedies are common due to America’s lack of drug price regulations. In a country like England, where there’s a single-payer health system, a government agency directly communicates with pharmaceutical companies and sets a maximum price for drugs. If the company doesn’t comply, they’re simply omitted from the market. America lacks such an efficient system due to its implementation of free-market policies when it comes to pharmaceuticals.
Despite all of the greed, some insulin manufacturers have proposed solutions to remedy this growing dilemma. CNBC reported that the health insurer Cigna will lower the cost of insulin copays to $25 a month for some members starting next year. While a good start, this will only impact 700,000 diabetics across the country, which will only assist 2.3% of the 30 million Americans the CDC spoke of.
No matter who wins office in the upcoming 2020 election, lowering the costs of insulin should be one of their top priorities. Yet, the only candidate who’s truly been vocal on the issue has been Sen. Bernie Sanders, who went as far as personally taking diabetics across the Canadian border in order to buy affordable insulin, according to Healthline. Upon their arrival, dozens of cheering Canadians gathered to show their support and vocalize their contempt for the greed of U.S. companies, showcasing how other nations view America’s approach to insulin costs.
The U.S. government needs to understand that the health and wellbeing of its citizens should eclipse corporate profit. ADA reported that in 2015, diabetes was the seventh leading cause of death in America. The idea that a child should die because their family can’t afford the cost of insulin would make Frederick Banting roll in his grave, as he firmly stuck to the belief that it was unethical for a person to profit off something that saved lives. It’s time for insulin manufacturers to set aside their greed and follow the example of the very man who invented their source of profit.
Ian Welfley is a junior communications/media arts & design double major. Contact Ian at firstname.lastname@example.org.