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The top 3 insulin makers recently announced price cuts. Here’s what to know

Eli Lilly, Novo Nordisk and Sanofi all announced plans to cap prices on the diabetes treatment after pressure from patients and politicians

Eli Lilly, one of the world's top insulin producers, said on March 1 it would cut the price of the drug that 7 million Americans use daily by 70 percent. (Video: Reuters)
6 min

This story has been updated.

After years of rising insulin prices, the world’s three dominant makers of the diabetes treatment all announced sweeping price cuts in less than three weeks. That’s welcome news for the roughly 7 million Americans who use insulin daily to treat diabetes, including some who have had to ration their dosage because of the cost and inadequate insurance coverage.

The company announcements come as the Biden administration has pressed the industry to rein in prices, which have skyrocketed in recent years and weighed on lower- and middle-income people with diabetes. Congress authorized a $35-per-month cap for some seniors with Medicare coverage, but that does not help those with private insurance struggling to afford the lifesaving medication.

Here are some key questions about the moves and what they mean for consumers.

Who is lowering prices and by how much?

Eli Lilly became the first to announce, on March 1, that it was cutting the list price of its most popular insulin products by 70 percent and expanding a program to cap costs at no more than $35 a month. Novo Nordisk said on March 14 it would cut the wholesale price of several of its insulin products by up to 75 percent starting in January 2024. Two days later, Sanofi announced it would cut the list price of its most widely prescribed insulin by 78 percent starting next January.

“We are pleased to see others join our efforts to help patients as we now accelerate the transformation of the U.S. insulin market,” Sanofi said in a statement on Thursday.

Why are manufacturers lowering insulin prices now?

Eli Lilly, Novo Nordisk and Sanofi have all described the sweeping reductions as a continuation of their efforts to make insulin more affordable. David Ricks, Eli Lilly’s chief executive, acknowledged that the company could have cut the list price sooner but pointed to the complex dynamics of the U.S. health-care system, where the list price of insulin serves as a basis for rebates paid to health plans and could affect the product’s availability.

Yet the price cuts are unfolding against the backdrop of mounting public outrage over the cost of diabetes care, government investigations into pricing and political pressure. One major catalyst has been the Inflation Reduction Act, which capped insulin costs at $35 a month for patients covered by Medicare Part D.

Prices of the four most popular types of insulin have tripled in the past decade, according to the American Diabetes Association. A November study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that 1.3 million adults with diabetes, or 16.5 percent of those who use insulin to manage the disease, rationed use in 2021. A 2022 Yale University study found that 1 in 7 Americans who use insulin daily spent roughly 40 percent of their income, after food and housing, on the medicine.

Which medications are affected, and how much will they cost?

Lilly’s most affordable insulin — its non-branded lispro injection — will run $25 per vial starting May 1, compared with $82.41 now. Humalog, its most commonly prescribed insulin, will drop 70 percent from $530.40 for a five-pack of insulin pens to roughly $160. That price will be effective in the fourth quarter of 2023.

As of Jan. 1, 2024, Novo Nordisk’s NovoLog and NovoLog Mix insulin products will cost $72.34 per vial. The company’s Levemir will run $107.85 per vial, and Novolin will cost $48.20.

Sanofi said it will cut the list price of Lantus, its most widely prescribed insulin in the U.S., by 78 percent and reduce the price of Apidra, its short-acting insulin, by 70 percent in January.

Why aren’t prices on all drugs being lowered?

In recent years, there’s been political jousting over insulin prices and how to lower them. Last year, congressional Democrats attempted to impose a sweeping $35-per-month price cap for both Medicare patients and those with private insurance. But the provision, included in the Inflation Reduction Act, was limited after Republicans successfully jettisoned the part of the proposal that applied to privately insured patients.

Republicans block cap on insulin costs for millions of patients

In his State of the Union address last month, President Biden called on Congress to pass a provision that would cap insulin prices in the private insurance market.

After the speech, an Eli Lilly spokeswoman told CNBC that the company supported extending a $35-per-month price cap to privately insured patients. The company noted that it had a program that caps insulin prices at $35-per-month for many patients.

Still, Biden on Wednesday called Lilly’s move a “big deal” and said “it’s time for other manufacturers to follow.”

More than 20 states and D.C. have passed insulin price caps ranging from $25 to $100 per month.

Why has insulin cost so much?

The researchers who discovered insulin in 1921 sold their patent to the University of Toronto for $3, and for decades the price per vial remained as affordable as any household item. Ads published in The Post in the 1960s advertised insulin for as little as 84 cents a vial, less than a bottle of shampoo.

But in recent decades, as producers have made improvements to the medicine and generated new patents, companies have raised prices.

The cost of some insulin products swelled by over 200 percent between 2007 and 2018, according to the medical journal Lancet. For someone with little to no health-insurance coverage, the pharmacy bill could push past $1,000 a month when higher doses are required.

Why treating diabetes keeps getting more expensive

What does insulin do?

Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas. It helps the body control blood-sugar levels and transform food into energy.

For diabetics, the body either doesn’t make enough insulin (Type 1 diabetes) or it is not used correctly (Type 2). People with Type 1 need a daily dose of insulin to live, while those with Type 2 can be prescribed insulin, known as “human insulin,” to manage blood-sugar levels.

About 37 million Americans have diabetes, according to the latest data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, although some use other methods to control their blood sugar.

How do people use insulin?

The hormone is typically injected using a needle, pen or pump. In some cases, it’s consumed via an inhalable powder.

What’s next for diabetes advocates?

The American Diabetes Association lauded the steps by manufacturers to reduce insulin prices but said “the fight is not over. We will continue advocating for efforts in Congress and states across the country to ensure insulin is affordable to everyone with diabetes who relies on it to survive.”

T1 International, a grass roots advocacy organization, said it will continue to press for more competition in the market and regulation to hold companies accountable, including calling on Congress to regulate the price of insulin.