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A patient holds insulin

A patient shows her insulin kit on January 17, 2020 in St. Paul, Minnesota. (Photo: Kerem Yucel/AFP via Getty Images)

Amid Eli Lilly-Twitter Fiasco, Groups Call for End to Insulin Price Gouging

"The fake Eli Lilly account was right. Insulin should be free."

Kenny Stancil

Dozens of progressive advocacy groups marked World Diabetes Day on Monday by urging Congress to pass legislation that would ensure people in the United States have access to the insulin on which their survival depends and prevent Big Pharma from price gouging on the lifesaving medicine.

In a letter addressed to Senate and House leaders, Public Citizen, T1International, and more than 50 other organizations wrote: "World Diabetes Day marks the birthday of Frederick Banting, who discovered insulin and famously sold its patent for $1 and stated, 'Insulin does not belong to me, it belongs to the world.' Despite its discovery more than 100 years ago and the generosity of Banting and the co-inventors, many people living in the United States still struggle to afford access to the insulin they need."

"It is a crime against humanity that insulin is made by corporations that care only about maximizing profits."

The letter was released amid a high-profile conflict between Twitter and the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly. Last week, a user exploited Twitter CEO Elon Musk's hastily overhauled verification process to create an account posing as Eli Lilly's official page. The user proceeded to fire off a tweet declaring that "insulin is free now," causing Eli Lilly's share price to drop and drawing fresh attention to the sky-high price of the medicine in the U.S.

Diabetes—a disease that can wreak havoc on organs, eyesight, and limbs if left unmanaged—affects more than 37 million U.S. adults and is the country's seventh leading cause of death, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Meanwhile, the price of insulin, which is needed to treat diabetes, is so astronomical in the U.S. that experts have accused the federal government and pharmaceutical industry of violating human rights.

Although it costs a mere $10 to produce a vial of insulin, uninsured patients in the U.S. pay $300 to $400 per vial of the century-old drug because the three pharmaceutical corporations that control the nation's lucrative insulin market charge excessive prices with very little pushback from congressional lawmakers. Big Pharma's rampant profiteering—a problem compounded by the widespread lack of coverage under the nation's for-profit healthcare system—is forcing many people to skip doses, with deadly consequences.

Recent studies found that 1.3 million people in the U.S. ration insulin, including an estimated 1 in 4 people with type 1 diabetes. People without insurance are the most likely to ration insulin, followed by those with private insurance.

"As people in the United States struggle to access affordable insulin, the big three drug corporations that manufacture insulin have repeatedly and sharply raised prices and aggressively sought to extend lucrative product monopolies, resulting in many billions of dollars in excessive spending," states the letter. "Since the 1990s, insulin manufacturers have raised prices many times over for U.S. patients, as much as 1,100%, despite their products remaining largely unchanged, and low production costs."

"Abusive pricing of insulin, which the very same corporations who sell insulin here sell for a fraction of the price in other wealthy countries, has led to immense profits for these corporations at the cost of preventable suffering and death of people who need insulin, in addition to billions of dollars drained from government coffers and consumers' bank accounts," the letter continues.

Signatories expressed gratitude "for the progress made recently through the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act that will limit Medicare Part D beneficiaries' monthly out-of-pocket costs for each insulin prescription to $35."

However, they pointed out, "this reform barely scratches the surface of what is needed to truly expand insulin access and likely does nothing to lower the excessive prices charged by insulin manufacturers."

Any congressional legislation seeking to address this issue must "ensure people without insurance and people with private insurance, who are most vulnerable to rationing, have access to the insulin they need," the letter stresses.

Moreover, it adds: "Any insulin legislation that fails to lower the prices charged by insulin manufacturers would fail to hold these corporations accountable, in effect rewarding them for decades of price gouging. Legislation reining in insulin prices should not take a carrot-only approach or rely on voluntary concessions from insulin manufacturers to do so."

The letter comes in the wake of a recent dust-up on Twitter featuring Eli Lilly—one of the "big three" insulin manufacturers—and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who has famously led caravans of people with diabetes into neighboring Canada to draw attention to the outrageously high price of insulin in the U.S.

It started Thursday afternoon when an account using Eli Lilly's name and logo tweeted: "We are excited to announce insulin is free now."

As The Washington Post reported:

The tweet carried a blue "verified" check mark, a badge that Twitter had used for years to signal an account’s authenticity—and that Twitter's new billionaire owner, Elon Musk, had, while declaring "power to the people!" suddenly opened to anyone, regardless of their identity, as long as they paid $8.

But the tweet was a fake—one of what became a fast-multiplying horde of impersonated businesses, political leaders, government agencies, and celebrities. By the time Twitter had removed the tweet, more than six hours later, the account had inspired other fake Eli Lilly copycats and been viewed millions of times.

After its stock tanked, the company issued the following message from its official account: "We apologize to those who have been served a misleading message from a fake Lilly account."

Some social media users celebrated, writing that the fake account "just cost Eli Lilly billions," and suggesting that "whoever bought that Eli Lilly blue check has to hold the title for spending the most consequential $8 in modern human history."

But Sanders used it as an occasion for political education, saying on Friday that "Eli Lilly should apologize for increasing the price of insulin by over 1,200% since 1996 to $275 while it costs less than $10 to manufacture."

"The inventors of insulin sold their patents in 1923 for $1 to save lives, not to make Eli Lilly's CEO obscenely rich," Sanders added.

Sanders went on to spotlight the price of insulin in various countries, asserting that "no one should be forced to take out their wallets for insulin—a lifesaving drug that was invented nearly 100 years ago."

"Why have insulin prices soared?" Sanders asked Monday. "Just three companies (Eli Lilly, Novo, and Sanofi) control 90% of the insulin market while jacking up prices in tandem. It's time to break up their patents and end this collusion. Americans should not be forced to pay 10 times more for insulin than Canadians."

Sanders' staff director Warren Gunnels, for his part, tweeted, "It is a crime against humanity that insulin is made by corporations that care only about maximizing profits, not saving lives."

"The fake Eli Lilly account was right," he added. "Insulin should be free."

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