Everything else seems to cost $35 in New York City, so why not insulin? The Biden administration kicked off the year by capping monthly insulin costs for Medicare-enrolled seniors to $35 through the Inflation Reduction Act. Drugmaker Eli Lilly also limited insulin prices to $35 earlier this month to comply, and extended the cap to non-Medicare users. Its two primary competitors, Sanofi and Novo Nordisk, recently followed suit and also slashed prices.
The medication is needed to control blood-sugar levels.
The National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) Dr. Eliseo J. Pérez-Stable, who directs the agency’s National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, told the Amsterdam News it’s about time insulin prices come down. He said the drug is almost a century old, and the price should reflect that.
“There’s really no excuse why an old drug that’s essential and relatively easy to make should be priced so high,” said Pérez-Stable. “Outrage came [with] different formulations of insulin, new formulations of insulin, and a way of packaging it, and suddenly the price went to $900 a month. This is a $35 a month cap. It costs maybe $35 to make a year’s supply of your basic insulin.”
Last November, the Annals of Internal Medicine found 23% of Black Americans surveyed who were living with diabetes rationed insulin, typically due to high copays and lack of insurance. And of course, because of the general high cost of the medication.
African American Diabetes Association chair Barbara King called the news a “step in the right direction” and said it makes the medication significantly more accessible to communities of color. But she maintained there are myriad other concerns that Black Americans living with diabetes face that can’t be capped at $35.
“Invest into Black communities—invest in them to try to prevent diabetes before so you won’t don’t have to give them the insulin,” said King. “What about that? What about helping African Americans in different communities that don’t have the access? It’s sad to say, but if you don’t have the correct color skin, you do not get the correct kind of treatment. And I’ve been through it.”
She’s lived with type 1 diabetes since 2006, but only started receiving proper care two years ago. To afford insulin and other treatment, King said her ex-partner could not quit or lose his job so she wouldn’t lose her insurance and subsequent insulin, and potentially her life. As for prevention, King fears non-Black doctors are often culturally incompetent to prescribe diets properly for Black patients living with diabetes.
“We’re working with nutritionists and my goal is…[to] teach them how to cook with our foods,” she said. “[Growing up], we’ve seen fruit and stuff, but it was all fatty foods. Now that I’m older and that I have kids [and grandkids], I want to teach them how to eat healthy so they will not go through what I’m going through.”
Through her work at the African American Diabetes Association, King said folks she’s helped often struggle to comprehend how to apply insulin and can be too proud to ask for help. She has also interacted with incarcerated people living with diabetes who aren’t receiving proper care, including a young man who told her his cellmate needed to give him candy to prevent him from passing out when his blood sugar levels dropped dangerously.
In 2016, then-Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams wrote an op-ed for the Amsterdam News addressing his own journey of living with diabetes, crediting a neighbor who encouraged his healthy eating habits only to find out the neighbor had died from diabetes complications while Adams was writing the piece. The now-mayor recently boasted about the relaunch of the Groceries 2 Go program, which he hopes will help combat diabetes through makin fresh produce more accessible.
Dr. Utibe Essien, an assistant professor of medicine at UCLA who is originally from New York City, said a “one-size fits all” approach to diabetes care and prevention is not effective, especially when attempting to close the gaps in racial disparities.
“Social factors that help our patients and community members lead healthy lives can be impossible for a lot of people,” he said. “To just say ‘go home, eat healthy, come back when you lose a few pounds and these diabetes numbers [will] get fixed’—that’s just not a solution for a lot of people.
“Then there’s being culturally competent [and] realizing that not everyone is going to be able to go home and eat kale salad or [go on] a ‘Mediterranean’ diet. So how can we get creative in the way that we teach patients and talk to patients about the diet and the lifestyle side of things?”
Essien said the NYC Department of Education plays a key role in preventing type 2 diabetes because many city youngsters get their nutrition from school lunches. In addition, he recommends more green space in his hometown, referencing his own experiences growing up in his childhood home in Queens. Ultimately, he’s optimistic about the $35 insulin caps, but there’s more work to be done.
“We’re really hopeful that’s going to be a step in the right direction for a lot of patients,” said Essien, “but it’s definitely not the final solution.”
Tandy Lau is a Report for America corps member and writes about public safety for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting https://bit.ly/amnews1.