Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Cori Bush on Thursday introduced legislation that would prohibit pharmaceutical companies from charging more than $20 for a vial of insulin, a move that comes a week after Eli Lilly pledged to cap out-of-pocket payments for its insulin products at $35 per month.
"As a nurse, I've seen too many people in our communities struggle to afford their lifesaving insulin medication," Bush (D-Mo.) said in a statement. "People are left choosing between insulin or groceries; insulin or rent; insulin or child care. This is unacceptable."
More than 7 million people across the U.S. use insulin to manage their diabetes, and some have been forced to pay upwards of $1,000 per month for the medicine as pharmaceutical giants have jacked up prices with abandon in recent decades.
According to one study published in October, more than a million people in the U.S. have had to ration insulin due to the high cost.
Sanders (I-Vt.), the chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee and a longtime advocate of insulin price reform, said Thursday that "there is no reason why Americans should pay the highest prices in the world for insulin—in some cases, ten times as much as people in other countries."
"In 1923, the inventors of insulin sold their patents for $1 to save lives, not to turn pharmaceutical executives into billionaires," said Sanders. "Now, 100 years later, unacceptable corporate greed has caused the price of this lifesaving medication to skyrocket by over 1,000% since 1996. We can no longer tolerate a rigged healthcare system that forced 1.3 million people with diabetes to ration insulin while the three major insulin manufacturers made $21 billion dollars in profits."
"Now is the time for Congress to take on the greed and power of the pharmaceutical industry and substantially lower the price of insulin," the senator added. "In the richest country in the history of the world, no one should die because they cannot afford the medication they need."
If passed, the Insulin for All Act of 2023 would cap the list price of insulin nationwide at "$20 per 1000 units... which may be contained in one or more vials, pens, cartridges, or other forms of delivery."
Original co-sponsors of the legislation include Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Reps. Jamaal Bowman and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, and Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon.
"Big Pharma continues to rake in record profits by gouging patients on insulin prices," Merkley said in a statement. "Unaffordable high prices are forcing patients to ration their insulin, leading to dire health consequences—heart attacks, stroke, blindness, kidney failure, foot disease and amputations, even death. It's tragic, it's unacceptable, and it's time to end this rip-off."
The new bill is also backed by more than 70 advocacy organizations, including T1International, Public Citizen, and Social Security Works.
"This bill being called the Insulin for All Act of 2023 shows the power of grassroots activism," said Elizabeth Pfiester, a patient with Type 1 diabetes and the founder and executive director of T1International, the group behind the #insulin4all campaign.
"We know that Eli Lilly isn't lowering the list price of one of their insulins out of the goodness of their hearts," Pfiester added. "That's why policy change to ensure patients with diabetes can't be exploited anymore is essential."
Eli Lilly's decision earlier this month to slash the prices of its most-prescribed insulin products by 70% was cautiously welcomed by advocates who have been organizing against insulin price gouging for years.
But campaigners stressed that given the serious limitations of Eli Lilly's pledge—and the company's ability to raise prices again whenever it chooses—federal action is still necessary to ensure lower costs for everyone, including those who use products made by the other two giant insulin manufacturers, Sanofi and Novo Nordisk.
The three companies produce more than 90% of the global insulin supply, market dominance that has allowed them to drive up costs massively—drawing legal action from several U.S. states, including California.
Last April, Human Rights Watch released a report showing that Eli Lilly has raised the list price of Humalog by an inflation-adjusted 680% since it first began selling the product in the late 1990s. The company vowed earlier this month to slash the list price of Humalog by 70% starting in the fourth quarter of this year.