Spiking Insulin Costs Put Patients in Brutal Bind

Gabriella Corley was a normal, healthy little girl: cheerleader, basketball player, full of energy.

Then, in 2014, her parents noticed some troubling symptoms: bed-wetting, frequent urination, insatiable thirst. A visit to the doctor turned into a trip to the emergency room when a test showed her blood sugar was perilously high. Doctors diagnosed the girl, now 11, with type 1 diabetes and gave her the first of what will be a lifetime of insulin shots to keep her alive.

But the Corley family’s ordeal was just beginning.

Gabriella started getting welts at the injection site with brand-name insulin Humalog, then NovoLog, so doctors tried Apidra, which finally worked to control her blood sugar. Then came the bill: $250 a vial, because her insurer considered it a tier 3 drug, the mid-range of drug costs. Tier 3 typically includes brand name drugs for which there is no generic alternative Gabriella needed 1.5 vials a month.

The expense was too much for her parents, both public school employees. They turned to the black market, a GoFundMe campaign, insulin-swapping Facebook groups, and whatever else they could afford to keep their daughter alive.

“She doesn’t have an option. Without insulin, she dies,” says her mother, Andrea Corley, of Elkins, WV. “It’s just a tough pill to swallow that an insurance company and pharmaceutical company can be making so much money over medically necessary medication.”

It’s a dilemma facing people with diabetes and their families across the nation. Insulin prices have skyrocketed in recent years, on average tripling between 2002 and 2013. One popular brand, NovoLog, increased in list price by 353% from 2001 to 2016. Some, like the Corleys, raise the money however they can, while other people with diabetes take less effective insulin or ration what they have. One survey revealed that 45% of diabetes patients had gone without insulin because of the price. And in some cases, the consequences have been fatal.