In 1923, the inventors of insulin sold its patent for $1, hoping the low price would keep the essential treatment available to everyone who needed it. Now, retail prices in the US are around the $300 range for all insulins from the three major brands that control the market. A vial of insulin costs approximately $5 for a drug company to manufacture.
Stories of Americans rationing insulin - and dying for it - have been making headlines such as the case of 26-year-old Alec Smith, who died in 2017 less than a month after he aged out of his mother's health insurance plan. Despite working full-time making more than minimum wage, he could not afford to buy new insurance or pay the $1,000 a month for insulin without it. There are any number of reasons why someone might still be uninsured in America - if they don't qualify for employer-sponsored insurance or lose their job or if they cannot afford to pay for a plan on their own. 36 years old Laura Marston has sacrificed to keep herself alive: Her car, her furniture, her apartment, her retirement fund, even her dog. She has already sold all of her possessions twice to afford the insulin her body needs every day to stay alive.
"I was spending $2,880 a month just to keep myself alive - that was more than I was making even working 50 hours a week," says Ms Marston. By her calculations, for insulin alone, she'll need close to $7m to live until she's 70 if she pays out of pocket. Ms Marston was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when she was 14 when the price of insulin in 1996 was $25 for one vial. Two decades later, Ms Marston still uses the same formula of insulin - Eli Lilly's Humalog. Even the packaging is the same. "Nothing about it has changed, except the price has gone up from $21 a vial to $275 a vial."
The pharmaceutical industry is one of the most profitable sectors in modern capitalist history, annually earning surpluses that are double the Fortune 500 average. Some pharma companies have reported annual profits at an astounding margin of 40% and above. Those enormous profits set the stage for pharma companies paying their CEOs and top executives staggering salaries, with compensation packages that average over $41 million per year. They spend hundreds of billions of windfall revenue on enriching stockholders—more than they spend on research and development.
Big Pharma’s tactic to deflect attention and blame is dishonest and inaccurate.