UPDATED: Lawmakers suggest Lilly, Novo, Sanofi colluded on insulin prices, call for probe

Sen. Bernie Sanders, the firebrand of the drug price debate, has ratcheted up his attack on insulin prices, calling on the Justice Department and the FTC to investigate Eli Lilly, Novo Nordisk and Sanofi for possibly colluding on price increases.

Earlier this week, Sanders took to Twitter to raise questions about insulin pricing over the years. Then on Thursday, he and Rep. Elijah Cummings, his frequent partner in attacks on drugmakers, sent a letter to the regulators. They pointed out that prices have escalated significantly over the years, but more importantly, they charged that the price increases have often happened at the same times.

“Not only have these pharmaceutical companies raised insulin prices significantly--sometimes by double digits overnight--in many instances the prices have apparently increased in tandem,” the letter reads.

Citing SSR Health research info, they charged that the prices of Sanofi’s ($SNY) Lantus and Novo’s ($NOVO) Levemir, leaders in the long-acting insulin market, have gone up at essentially the same time 13 times since 2009.

Lilly ($LLY) said in an email said that the complex reimbursement methods put an unfair burden on people with diabetes but was adamant in denying any price fixing.

“We strongly disagree with the accusations in the letter. The insulin market in the U.S. is highly competitive. As several news outlets have reported, our average net realized price for Humalog has not increased since 2009,” Lilly said. It went on to say that it adheres to the highest ethical standards and looks “forward to setting the record straight on how the insulin market works in the U.S.”

In an emailed response, the Danish drugmaker said, “Novo Nordisk is committed to developing innovative medicines for patients with diabetes. We set price for these life-saving medicines independently and then negotiate with payers and PBMs to ensure patients have access to them. We stand by our business practices and our efforts to improve the lives of patients with diabetes.”

And Sanofi said that it "understands that the price and affordability of our products is important for patients." It said it had not increased the list price of Lantus since November 2014.

But Sanders and Cummings' letter went on to point out that there is some history to base their claims on, at least outside the U.S. The letter says that in 2010, Lilly’s Mexico operation and three other companies were fined by that country’s antitrust commission for “taking turns placing winning bids for government contracts to buy insulin--artificially inflating prices by agreeing not to compete."

Payers have already been pushing back on the prices they were paying for insulin, one of the most prescribed drugs in the country. They have struck exclusive deals in some cases, getting deep discounts for their clients while cutting the other drugmakers out of their formularies.

As a result, Novo said last week that prices have gotten soft and it actually expects insulin prices to fall next year. In response, it slashed its earnings forecast for the year in the face of tightening prices and exclusions from some payers’ formularies. It is also cutting about 1,000 jobs worldwide in the face of lower profits.

Editor's Note: The story was updated with comments from Sanofi.