On heels of drug pricing hearings, Democratic lawmakers kick off insulin probe

Drug pricing has been a daily topic of discussion in Washington, D.C., in recent months. (Pixabay)

Sanofi, Novo Nordisk and Eli Lilly have faced years of scrutiny over insulin prices, but their responses haven't satisfied two Democratic lawmakers who this week kicked off a fresh investigation into pricing for the products. The probe comes as drug pricing creates daily headlines in Washington, D.C., with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle debating potential solutions.

Reps. Frank Pallone, chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Diana DeGette, chair of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, reached out to executives from the three drugmakers with questions over rising insulin prices. As they pointed out in the letters (PDF), insulin was discovered nearly 100 years ago, but list prices continue to rise. 

In fact, between 2002 and 2013, insulin list prices tripled, according to the letter. And from 2012 to 2016, prices doubled. They cited reports of patients rationing insulin, and even dying, due to the high costs. With that background, the lawmakers want to know why prices are so high and what they might be able to do to help. 

In the letters, the lawmakers requested rationale for price increases over the last 10 years and net profit from insulin over that time frame, plus modifications to insulin, if any, over the same period. 

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Lastly, the lawmakers asked the drugmakers whether they entered agreements that prevented the delay of generic insulins and how they believe the market will play out in the next 5 years. They requested answers by Feb. 13. 

A Sanofi spokeswoman said the company received a letter and will work with the committee on the information requests. She added that “there are serious and important policy issues around our list prices and our dropping net price that we’re always happy to discuss,” pointing out that the net price of insulin is actually 25% lower than in 2012.  Additionally, she cited resources for patients such as free medicine for uninsured patients who qualify, co-pay assistance for patients with commercial insurance and a VALyou savings program the company runs for insulin products. 

RELATED: FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb blasts insulin pricing, unveils move to bolster biosimilar competition 

A spokesman for Novo Nordisk said the company is reviewing the request and plans to respond. He encouraged patients to call the company to find out about its access programs. An Eli Lilly spokesman said it's a "serious topic" and that the company is "committed to ensuring everyone living with diabetes has reasonable access to insulin."

"A comprehensive policy solution for people with chronic diseases requires commitment from everyone in the healthcare system," he added. "Until then, we will continue our work to provide thousands of people each month with access to insulin at significantly lower out-of-pocket costs.”

Sanofi, Eli Lilly and Novo Nordisk produce the bulk of the world’s insulin. The companies have faced years of scrutiny over their pricing as the spread between list prices and net prices has grown, forcing patients to pay more out of pocket. Meanwhile, the drugmakers themselves have been paying out higher rebates to secure favorable formulary coverage, hurting their financial performance. 

In December, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb got involved. He unveiled plans to bolster biosimilar competition for insulins, although it’s unclear how much price relief new biosimilars would provide or when that relief would come.

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The latest investigation comes amid a heated backdrop for drug prices in the U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings recently kicked off a pricing probe of a dozen leading drugmakers, and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle held hearings this week to learn more about drug prices. Still, lawmakers have been talking about prices for years, and it remains to be seen whether Congress can reach a consensus about how to move forward on the issue.