In 1923, Frederick Banting made one of history’s most remarkable discoveries with insulin. Banting was well aware of the significance of his creation and saw the potential. He was so convinced of its importance that he refused to put his name on the patent. He said it was not ethical for a doctor to profit from saving lives.
His co-inventors were on the same page. When James Collip and Charles Best sold the insulin patent to the University of Toronto, they did so for one dollar. They wanted to set a precedent for insulin’s availability. They wanted everyone to be able to afford it.
In the ensuing century, the legacy of Banting, Collip and Best could not be more disrespected. Insulin saves a lot of lives, and it is making a lot of people rich. Over the last ten years, the four most popular types of insulin have tripled, while costs have doubled for people paying out of pocket. In 2016, the average price was about $450. An estimated 25 percent of the roughly 30 million Americans with diabetes say they are going lighter on doses or even skipping them altogether because they simply can’t afford them. You don’t have to look too hard to find horror stories of men and women who died because they simply couldn’t afford a drug that has been widely available since the second World War.
There has been mounting political will to get these prices under control, but not enough. In 2021, Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Jan Schakowsky proposed the Affordable Drug Manufacturing Act, which would have empowered the federal government to set prices for life-saving drugs, but neither party bit. Now, the Senate’s sweeping budget package racks as one of President Joe Biden’s biggest achievements, but a parliamentary rule was used to slice off a proposal that would have capped insulin prices at $35 for privately insured patients. All Democrats and several Republicans voted for the proposal, but enough members of the GOP rallied to get it kicked out of the package.
“Today it’s the government fixing the price on insulin,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers. “What’s next, gas? Food?”
It’s easy to get blinkered on this point, seeing insulin prices as a partisan issue. Obviously, it’s to politicians’ benefit for us to look at it that way. But we can resist that kind of rhetoric. Setting a price cap for insulin is popular with voters across the aisles, honors the memories of the people who discovered it and, most importantly, can save lives. A Yale University study found that paying for insulin is an “extreme financial burden” for 14 percent of people who need it.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer says he’ll try to bring the proposal back for another vote in a few months.