Insulin pumps for diabetes — the cost of health

insulinpumpElisabeth Rosenthal of the New York Times published her article “Even Small Medical Advances Can Mean Big Jumps in Bills” on April 6, 2014.  Type 1 diabetes is a rapidly fatal illness without insulin treatment.  The discovery of insulin in the 1920’s changed the disease from fatal to treatable and with improved insulin and improved devices to deliver the drug people with the disease now can look forward to a long life.

The article by Ms. Rosenthal points up the cost of current insulin pump therapy.  She lists the yearly cost of insulin treatment for one woman as $26,470 (a large part paid by the woman’s insurance).

Surely, big pharma would not take advantage patients with life threatening illness like diabetes.  Surely, they would not pad the bill with unnecessary equipment or lock-in patients to their brand of insulin with a device linked to that brand.  Surely, US big pharma would not disadvantage US citizens and favor drug plans in other countries.  WRONG, WRONG AND WRONG AGAIN.  It’s the modus operaindi of such organizations and a lack of regulation that allows it to happen.

  • Ms. Rosenthal comments on the fluff added to the bill:  talking pumps with multiple colors and new models every year.
  • The linking of insulin pumps to only one type of insulin (made by the insulin maker).
  • The withdrawal of less expensive insulin from the market.
  • The 70% profit on insulin.
  • The limited number of companies that now make insulin.
  • The sweet deals for countries that drive hard bargains (acquisition cost for a bottle of insulin in the UK $30 but in the US $200).

It seems there is a line to be drawn.  On one side is the unquestionable benefit of research and development that brings fantastic life saving benefit to many patients.  On another side is a business formula for fantastic profit to a few people.  Fortunately, one need not choose either extreme — it is possible to have adequate research and reasonable profit as demonstrated in other parts of the world.

So, what can and should be done?

  1. Break up drug companies to separate the manufacture of insulin and the manufacture of insulin pumps.  The competition in the pump market should not be limited by the drug maker.
  2. Limit drug patents with a strict end point and encourage smaller companies to make generics that may not be an exact copy but simply be similar (bio-similar).
  3. Set prices for drugs and devices based on realistic economic considerations (like limiting profit to 5%).
  4. Allow government sponsored research to compare various types of similar therapy to allow a reasonable choice by patients and providers.
  5. And, allow the government to negotiate prices since the government now pays a big part of health care costs.

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