We’ve become a broken record about insulin prices: They’re too high, and people who rely on the drug are paying the price—and not just with dollars and cents.
But the why of insulin prices isn’t always clear, and while stakeholders argue over whether the prices are the fault of greedy middlemen, a lack of competition, patent law, or the regulatory process, people are dying—and not in a figurative sense. In November of 2018, parents protested high insulin prices outside a pharmaceutical company’s headquarters carrying the ashes of their children who died while trying to ration insulin.
Things couldn’t get any more dire.
Spencer Macnaughton and Conall Jones of the Wall Street Journal set out to figure out why insulin is so expensive and explore the lengths some people go to to meet a need that can’t go ignored.
“It’s our oxygen, it’s our water. It’s that—it’s as essential as those things,” Karyn Wofford shared in tears, trying to explain what it was like trying to get insulin. She and her husband both work and they have insurance, but it’s not enough. The couple recently moved in with Karyn’s parents to help make ends meet, and that’s not Karyn’s only strategy for getting affordable insulin. Some of her methods are outside what’s strictly legal, but for Karyn, it’s about survival.
There are some groups already working to make insulin more accessible. The Open Insulin Project in California is trying to create a patent-free insulin that could be freely available to hospitals and small pharmacies, but the group of biohackers hasn’t nailed down how to navigate the regulatory process yet. Still, they hope they’ll eventually be able to upset the oligarchy that Eli Lilly, Novo Nordisk, and Sanofi currently have on the insulin market.
In the video below, Jason Bellini interviews people with diabetes, biohackers, and pharmaceutical company representatives to try and find some answers. The video is just under 10 minutes, but if you have the time, it’s well worth it. It shows how creative people can be when they’re desperate, and it offers disturbing insight into why insulin is so deadly expensive.
Katie Taylor started writing in 5th grade and hasn't stopped since. Her favorite place to pen a phrase is in front of her fireplace with a cup of tea, but she's been known to write in parking lots on the backs of old receipts if necessary. She and her husband live cozily in the Pacific Northwest enjoying rainy days and Netflix.