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A new generic insulin should benefit people without health insurance and those on high-deductible plans. Getty Images

For people in the United States living with diabetes, the cost of the medicine they need to survive continues to go skyward.

Eli Lilly has brought them a little hope, offering a half-price generic version of their insulin brand.

However, they might be asking if this less expensive insulin is as good as the brand-name version and who exactly will benefit from it.

Eli Lilly executives announced early this week that a generic version of their insulin injection Humalog will be made available at half the brand-name price.

Called Lispro, the medication will sell for $137 per vial with a five-pack of KwikPens going for $265.

The cheaper insulin will be offered by ImClone Systems, an Eli Lilly subsidiary. Like Humalog, Lispro can be used to treat both type 1 and type 2 diabetes.

“It’s a positive step forward in the journey toward more affordable insulin prices,” Laura Andromalos MS, RD, a certified diabetes educator at Cecelia Health, a health tech services company in New York City, told Healthline. “Hopefully it will lead to other insulin manufacturers considering similar options.”

“There are many additional steps needed to reduce medication prices in this country, but this move acknowledges and begins to address that challenge,” she added.

Officials at the American Diabetes Association agreed that the new generic drug is a good start, but they added there’s more that needs to be done.

“We are pleased that Eli Lilly and Company has made an important decision to help some people with diabetes impacted by rising insulin costs,” said a statement from the association sent to Healthline. “Availability of an ‘authorized generic’ version of their most prescribed insulin with a 50 percent lower price will help those who do not use insurance to purchase insulin.”

“While this is a positive step, the American Diabetes Association looks forward to continuing to work with all stakeholders to implement permanent solutions that ensure affordable access to this life-sustaining medication for all who need it. Insulin is not a luxury. It is a matter of life and death every day for more than 7.5 million Americans with diabetes,” added the statement, which was attributed to Tracey D. Brown, chief executive officer of the association, and Dr. William T. Cefalu, chief scientific, medical, and mission officer for the association.

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), generic drugs are created to be identical to an already available brand-name drug.

So someone using the lower-priced version of Humalog will be using what is essentially the same drug. Nothing is different, except the name it’s sold under and the price.

Generic medications are typically cheaper because the manufacturers of generic drugs don’t have the same costs as producers of a brand-name medication.

The maker of the brand name researched, developed, and marketed the drug, sometimes at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.

This is why there are drug patents. They allow companies a period of time when only they can make money on a product they invested in heavily to be approved by the FDA.

A generic manufacturer has no such expenses.

The drug’s formula is established, clinical trials are complete, and FDA approval has already been granted.

The generic maker only has to demonstrate to regulators that its version has the same quality and effectiveness as the original.

People who are uninsured or have high-deductible insurance plans will benefit most from the new, lower-priced version of Humalog.

Medicare beneficiaries who aren’t allowed to use a discount program that Eli Lilly offers to people with private insurance should also benefit.

Participants with Medicaid and Medicare as well as health insurance plans that receive rebates from the drugmaker will continue to have access to the Humalog insulin brand.

“The significant rebates we pay on insulins do not directly benefit all patients,” David Ricks, Eli Lilly’s chief executive officer, said in a statement. “This needs to change. There are numerous ideas, including the rebate reform proposal from the [Trump administration]. For people with diabetes, lower-priced insulin can serve as a bridge that addresses gaps in the system until a more sustainable model is achieved.”

Anyone who wants to switch to generic Lispro from Humalog is advised to talk to their doctor to make sure it’s a healthy change for them.

The global insulin market is dominated by three companies: Eli Lilly, the French company Sanofi, and the Danish firm Novo Nordisk.

All three companies have raised list prices drastically since introducing the current crop of insulin drugs.

According to a Senate letter sent to Scott Gottlieb, MD, commissioner of the FDA:

  • Eli Lilly debuted Humalog in 1996, and the list price of a 10-milliliter vial was $21. The price of that same vial is now $275.
  • Sanofi’s Lantus insulin brand was $35 per vial when introduced in 2001. It’s now $270.
  • Novo Nordisk’s Novolog cost $40 in 2001. As of July 2018, it was $289.

“It’s hard to blame one entity for price increases,” Andromalos said. “There’s a complicated dynamic between pharmaceutical manufacturers, pharmacy benefit managers, insurance companies, and policymakers.”

These increases aren’t only causing severe financial hardship. They may even be costing lives.

According to the American Diabetes Association, insulin rationing — when people take less insulin than they need — has become a growing health issue. Insulin rationing can cause diabetic ketoacidosis, a potentially fatal condition.

Eli Lilly’s move to offer more affordable insulin is seen by some as a start in the right direction.

“Medication pricing is dictated by market competition as opposed to being regulated. Collaboration among these key players will be necessary to develop pricing solutions,” Andromalos said.

Eli Lilly, the maker of Humalog brand insulin, has recently made a generic version available at half the price.

The generic drug called Lispro is identical to the brand-name medication and will benefit people who are uninsured or have high-deductible health insurance plans.

It could also reduce costs for plans such as Medicaid and Medicare.