UPDATED: Lilly, Novo latest to feel the wrath of Bernie Sanders over price hikes

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Insulin makers have been facing tough going in recent years as insurers have been pitting them against each other to extract big discounts on their drugs. But two of the heavyweights of diabetes meds, Eli Lilly and Novo Nordisk, have another daunting challenge to face: Sen. Bernie Sanders.

The former presidential candidate took aim at them on Twitter yesterday, saying: “People are dying or getting sicker because they can’t afford their insulin,” Bloomberg points out. “Just so Eli Lilly and Novo Nordisk can make outrageous profits.”

Data collected by the news service show that the milliliter cost of both Lilly’s popular Humalog and Novo Nordisk’s Novolog have doubled in the last five years.

The two companies quickly defended themselves. Eli Lilly ($LLY) in an emailed statement said:  "A permanent solution that gives everyone who uses insulin reasonable access will require leadership and cooperation across many stakeholders, including manufacturers, PBMs, payers, and policymakers.

"That’s because the answer itself isn’t simple. For instance, while the list price for Humalog has gone up, Lilly actually receives a lower average net price now than in 2009. When Lilly released third quarter earnings on October 25, the biggest miss noted was Humalog, whose US revenue fell 14 percent, driven by a 24 percent decline in net price.”

In an email, a Novo ($NOVO) spokesperson said: "It is true that the list price of many products has been rising in recent years. But so have the discounts which Novo Nordisk gives to large pharmaceutical purchasing organizations. As shown in our latest quarterly results, prices are expected to fall in 2017."

The criticism from Sanders comes even as Novo last week halved its earnings forecast for the year in the face of tightening prices and exclusions from some payer’s formularies. It also is cutting about 1,000 jobs worldwide in the face of lower profits.

While most American’s have their insulin costs covered in part by insurance, those who do pay full price have seen significant increases, especially if they have been moved to newer insulin products. But some experts point out that many diabetics have managed their disease fine for years with the older, less expensive insulins. David Nathan, a Harvard Medical School professor, told the Washington Post that his view is that the new drugs are more about protecting profits than patients.

“I don’t think it takes a cynic such as myself to see most of these drugs are being developed to preserve patent protection,” Nathan said. “The truth is they are marginally different, and the clinical benefits of them over the older drugs have been zero.”

Sanders has long been a critic of high drug prices and made the issue a key piece of his unsuccessful run for president. He was among senators to call on generic drugmaker Mylan to explain the 400% price increase since 2009 for its EpiPen, an epinephrine injection product that has pretty much had the market to itself. Sanders used Twitter to take aim at Mylan, which then spent weeks trying to justify the price jumps to legislators and the public, even as its stock price waned.

Two weeks ago, Sanders and Rep. Elijah Cummings pointed what they called the “staggering” price increases by Ariad Pharmaceuticals for leukemia drug Iclusig, which has increased to $199,000 per year from $115,000 per year in the four years since its approval. They sent a letter to Ariad CEO Paris Panayiotopoulos asking him to explain and seeking documents from 2012 to on Iclusig revenues, expenses, sales contracts and more. 

Related Articles: 
Novo equipped to weather the storm in the U.S. diabetes market, CEO says 
U.S. payer pressures force Novo Nordisk to cut loose 1,000 staffers 
Express Scripts bars new launches from Lilly, Merck and shuts out Novo for 2017 
Senator calls for investigations into Mylan's 400% EpiPen price increases 
Watchdog lawmakers interrogate Ariad’s ‘staggering’ price hikes

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