Insulin crisis: Skyrocketing prices sending patients to Canada

Average price tripled between 2002 and 2013

The American Diabetes Association says the average price of insulin tripled between 2002 and 2013.

That’s sending many Americans to Canada, where they pay up to 10 times less per vial. The FDA allows it if it’s for personal use and a three-month supply or less.

The rising prices are also causing diabetics in this country to skip doses or ration their insulin, which can mean serious complications or death. 

Adam Kozie is an insulin-dependent diabetic. His cost of a vial of insulin shot up from $40 to $135, even though he has insurance.

“I was exasperated, paying so much for my drugs. I need this to keep myself alive,” Kozie said.

Kozie's doctor, Irl Hirsch, professor of medicine at the University of Washington School of Medicine, told him he could drive to Canada, save money and get more than the one-month supply.

“That’s a huge benefit to being able to buy in Canada without a prescription, is that I have a fridge full of insulin right now. If something goes wrong, I have a huge supply of the thing that I need to stay alive,” Kozie said.

A diabetic himself, Hirsch has studied insulin prices for decades. He said Humalog went from $24 a vial when it came out in 1996 to $300 full retail now. People can get Humalog in Canada for $32 Canadian.

“That means they’re making money on that $30 vial of insulin, which in the U.S. at retail cost is 10 times that price,” Hirsch said. “It just infuriates me to no end that this drug that we’ve had for almost 100 years is inaccessible for so many people."

He said the difference is Canada regulates drug costs, the U.S. does not.

“We are now hearing of not just hospitalizations for people who have rationed or run out of their insulin, but now, this year, we are hearing of deaths," Hirsch said.

He said he'll keep fighting until insulin is accessible and affordable, and he hopes change is coming.

Several insulin makers are named in a class action lawsuit for alleged price fixing. The companies themselves are launching programs to make insulin more affordable, especially for the 3.2 million uninsured Americans.

Patients do have another option now in the U.S.: they can buy less expensive human or synthetic insulin for as little as $25 at Walmart. But it’s an older insulin and may act differently. Talk to your doctor before making a switch.