After 'nonsense' retort, Lilly CEO urges patients to seek its help affording insulin

After two senators criticized Eli Lilly over access to discounted insulin this week, CEO David Ricks called findings from their report “nonsense." Now, he's reaching out directly to patients about the drugmaker's affordability programs.

In an open letter Thursday, Ricks urges patients to go directly to the company for help purchasing insulins. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Richard Blumenthal had lambasted the company Monday after a survey showed it was difficult to find the company's new generic option at pharmacies.

The letter, which the drugmaker published in more than 40 top U.S. newspapers, represents the start of a campaign to educate patients about Lilly's insulin affordability programs, Lilly said. It highlights the Lilly Diabetes Solution Center, which patients can call to find out their money-saving options.

The campaign comes right before the calendar flips to 2020, and, with that change, many patients’ deductibles will reset. Lilly says it offers several programs to ease the pocketbook pain from that reset. For instance, many of Lilly's insulins come with a $95 monthly cap on pharmacy costs, the company says. Patients who earn 400% of the federal poverty level or less could be eligible for free insulin supplies.

In addition to the print effort, Lilly plans to kick off a “significant” digital campaign on news and consumer outlets later this month; those awareness efforts will continue through March, the company says. 

RELATED: Sense or 'nonsense'? Senators blast Lilly's generic insulin, but CEO Ricks strikes back 

Lilly and its fellow insulin giants have faced years of criticism for price hikes, even as payer rebates rose in lockstep along with sticker prices. Earlier this year, the drugmaker rolled out a half-priced authorized generic to its Humalog to bypass rebates altogether, but that product has run up against some barriers.

Warren and Blumenthal this week published findings from a national pharmacy survey that found the generic still isn’t readily available. The copycat wasn't in stock at 83% of pharmacies their offices surveyed, and when it was, half of those pharmacies didn’t offer it as the first option for patients. 

The senators' report concluded that “despite Eli Lilly’s public promise about the availability of a less expensive, authorized generic version of its brand-name insulin drug, the vast majority of pharmacies do not offer access” to it. 

Lilly CEO Ricks responded in an interview with CNBC’s Jim Cramer, calling the conclusion “nonsense.” What’s limiting uptake for the cheaper option is that pharma middlemen prefer higher list prices and higher rebates, he said, and push those higher-priced options.

“This doesn’t show that we didn’t try,” he told Cramer. “We did try. … This shows what’s broken in the rest of the pharmaceutical system.” 

RELATED: Lilly answers insulin price-hike critics with 50% off Humalog generic 

In November, about 67,000 patients filled prescriptions for the discounted version, a Lilly spokesman said. That's up from 52,000 in October. Nearly 10% of Humalog patients in the U.S. have switched to the authorized generic, he added.

Lilly isn’t the only insulin maker that’s faced insulin pricing scrutiny. The company, plus its peers Sanofi and Novo Nordisk, produce 80% of the world’s insulin and have faced years of criticism over affordability. Each drugmaker has implemented programs to help patients access their meds.