The Price of Life

The first vial of insulin sold for just $1 in 1922, but the prices have since skyrocketed, putting one vial at 500 to 700 dollars. The creator’s mission statement was to provide people with affordable insulin without a direct benefit for the provider, but as prices reach an all time high, it is clear that the raw price of insulin can no longer be considered affordable. Insulin was first discovered in 1921, by Frederick Banting and Charles Best. Banting chose not to include his name in the patent, as he found it unjust for anyone to profit off of an individual’s means of survival, according to “The Absurdly High Cost of Insulin, Explained” by Julia Belluz, in an article about the cost of insulin. 

Insulin is a hormone that controls the amount of sugar in your blood and is generally produced in the pancreas. Diabetics either don’t produce insulin, or just can’t produce enough of it to keep their blood sugar level balanced. As a national issue, higher insulin prices are affecting people on a local level. Students from Oyster River High School (ORHS) who have diabetes depend on insulin to keep themselves alive. High insulin and health insurance prices can cause a struggle with families of diabetics, making it very difficult to provide basic necessities like insulin vials, and pumps. These high prices force struggling diabetics to seek cheaper insulin options, which can sometimes include seeking alternatives in other countries. 

In places like Mexico, the prices of insulin are significantly lower. A three month supply without insurance can cost only $600, compared to America’s $3700, according to an article titled “Americans Cross Border Into Mexico To Buy Insulin At A Fraction Of U.S. Cost” from Kaiser Health News. In Canada, one vile of insulin without insurance costs just 30 to 60 dollars. 

There are three leading insulin companies that sell to Americans: Novo Nordisk, Sanofi S.A., and Eli Lilly and Company; all are multi-billion dollar companies. Although some bills, such as the Affordable Drug Manufacturing Act have been introduced, these bills have yet to be put into effect, which leaves 29.1 million U.S. citizens at a disadvantage. 

Oyster River student, Natalie Eddy (‘20), was diagnosed with diabetes over five years ago. “How has [diabetes] not affected my life,” Eddy said. “As soon as you get diagnosed, it is life or death and that becomes your first priority.” Eddy and her family have a strong and expensive health insurance plan which only requires Eddy to pay $40 out of pocket per vial. Her plan also allows her to have access to things like pumps and dexcoms which make the transfusion of insulin simpler and more efficient. Dexcoms are an electronic pump that pumps insulin continuously and makes it easier for users to monitor their blood sugar level. 

When diagnosed, doctors have different orders and requirements for each patient. Eddy, like most patients, uses about two vials of insulin per month. She also wears a pump and dexcom all the time. At $40 per vial at a rate of two viles a month, Eddy is paying roughly $80, plus insurance, in order to stay alive every month. Although Eddy’s plan may seem pricey, it’s better than what others have access to. “Even if insurance isn’t going to cover a pump or a dexcom, they need to cover syringes and insulin, because that is what you need to live,” explains Eddy.

Each vial of insulin contains about 1000 units, 200 of which Eddy puts into her pump every three days. Eddy has a pump called Omnipod, which is a smart, controlled pump which continuously pumps insulin into her body. “As time progresses I just keep needing more and more insulin. Even in the past couple weeks, 200 units just hasn’t been enough,” says Eddy.

Kimberly Wolph, the ORHS school nurse, also works with local hospitals such as CHAD and Gosselin to purchase insulin for local students and patients. Wolph says that normally, insurance compensates for about 80% of the insulin price, but this can differ per patient. Wolph began working with the hospitals in 2001, and has since seen changes in both technology and prices with diabetes. “We have a lot of new technology too that insurance often covers. We have many more school-age students with insulin pumps then we did 20 years ago,” said Wolph. Wolph mainly aids in purchasing insulin through a leading company called Novo Nordisk, which services about 111 other countries. 

ORHS student, Theo Fleischer (‘23), also has diabetes and was diagnosed 12 years ago when he was three years old. “My [diagnosis] was part of the reasons why we moved, because we used to live in Alaska. There weren’t really any diabetes centers, so we moved here because it is close to Boston, which has Gosselin,” says Fleischer.

“Our insurance has [also] been stubborn,” explains Fleischer, “I had to switch my insulin type just because they wouldn’t cover it.” Fleischer receives 10 vials per shipment through his insurance, which like Eddy’s, also includes a pump. 

Although Eddy is able to afford insulin, a pump, and a dexcom, she is aware that there are other people in the area who aren’t as fortunate as she is. “There were definitely some of my friends who I have seen at [local] camps who couldn’t afford dexcoms or pumps. Their blood sugars were actually running really high and they were unable to control them,” says Eddy. “Everyone who I talked to were all able to afford the insulin itself, but because their insurance isn’t covering as much as it should have been, they didn’t have the money or coverage to afford a pump or dexcom that would have really benefited them.”

Going forward, students like Fleischer and Eddy have to consider that keeping themselves alive may be a struggle. Eddy adds, “[The insurance companies] are basically in control and they decide what they think you need instead of what you really need. I just want to make sure that I get an insurance company to cover the things that I need and also the things that I may not need, but want to make life easier.”