Nurse performing blood sugar diabetes test to senior woman patient for home care during the coronavirus outbreak. Photo credit: Element Envato

House Democrats score big win, passes $35 cap on diabetes medications

Those living with diabetes might finally get some reprieve in out-of-pocket insulin costs.

On March 31, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the The Affordable Insulin Now Act with a 232-193 vote. Notably, 12 Republican members joined their counterparts on the other side of the aisle after months of debate. 

“No one should have to choose between taking their medication as prescribed and putting food on the table or a roof over their head,” asserted Michigan Rep. Dan Kildee on the House floor. The father of a Type 1 diabetic is among the three Democratic lawmakers who sponsored the legislation. 

He continued, “When my daughter turned 26 and got her own health insurance, there were months where she spent a third of her take-home pay because she’s diabetic [focused] on staying alive.”

Diabetes is among the top ten leading causes of American deaths, says the CDC. Behind ailments such as heart disease and cancer, now even COVID-19, more than 100 million people live with diabetes in the U.S. with another 84.1 million who are prediabetic. 

To worsen matters, maintaining the disease is already difficult on the body and mind as medication costs near upwards of $600 for a little more than a month’s supply. In some cases, a financial decision around insulin can mean life or death for those affected.

“Running out of insulin before payday was nearly a death sentence for me,” tweeted Charles Booker, who has dealt with Type 1 diabetes since being diagnosed in high school. The former Kentucky House of Representatives member often talked about his battle of foregoing insulin when he could not afford it. The U.S. Senate hopeful laments, “No one should have to die because they don’t have money in their pocket.” 

Democrats like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Chuck Schumer (D-NY) have urged and invited Republicans to get involved in the bipartisan issue last month. Yet, the measure may prospectively set a precedent on the price of medicine to Big Pharma and their lobbying Republicans’ chagrin. To add, opponents say the bill does not get to the root of rising costs. 

“We want lower prices for drugs, particularly for insulin,” conveyed Rep. Buddy Carter (R-GA). Labeling it a “socialist plan,” the Georgia Congressman added, “But instead of fixing a broken system, this bill aims to control it.” 

Needless to say, the debate on whether life-saving medication is poignant when questions of accessibility arise.

A host of implications

Diabetes can lead to a host of implications. For instance, the top killer of Americans–hypertension. The latter may likely result from diabetes because the resulting high blood sugar, or glucose, damages heart vessels and nerves. In the end, diabetes makes it twice as plausible to have heart disease or a stroke. Moreover, it makes it more probable to die younger; a double whammy if you are a man, according to a study by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. About one in every ten Americans has either form of diabetes–Type 1 or 2. The first indicates that you were typically born with your pancreas not creating enough insulin, while the second results from an overconsumption of sugar. As well, there is prediabetes which signifies elevated blood glucose levels just not high enough to call it Type 2 Diabetes. Almost one in three people, or 96 million Americans fall into the Type 2 category.

Annually, 1.4 million new cases are diagnosed in the country.

Monthly medication for insulin can cost almost $600 in the U.S. Photo credit: Pavel Danilyuk on Pexels

With so many people impacted by the disease, the proposed bill brings up a possible blockade for politicians against the cost-effective measure for which their constituencies may depend. Needless to say, there are a vast number of Americans across different socioeconomic backgrounds being affected. 

Like with other healthcare, having diabetes is an expensive health issue because insulin is costly. For years, there has been a debate surrounding the latter’s cost. In the 1990s, the estimated price of the medication was $21. Yet, recent costs range from $175 to $350 per vial, a surge of more than 1000 percent. To complicate matters, it is vital to a diabetic’s life. Unfortunately, these are hundreds of dollars people just do not have, especially during a global health crisis. 

Since midterm elections are around the corner, many afflicted Americans are watching and voting accordingly, especially minorities because diabetes disproportionately affects their populations as per a study published by the National Library of Medicine. Black people and Latinos bear the brunt of this because they are more susceptible to having diabetes. 

Compared to white counterparts, they are also among the most likely as to not have health insurance according to a 2020 U.S. Census Bureau report. Actually, Latinos are the least expected to have health insurance overall. Hence, both groups suffer in supplementing medication costs, and have an increased chance of death sentence because of it. Still, they are tired of being ignored. 

“Republicans oppose everything Democrats put on the table,” said African American elder Patricia Tyson. “If [the problems in question] do not involve them, they do not care. I know how I [will] vote.”

Ultimately, the most vulnerable populations in the country are children and seniors. Approximately 244,000 children have Type 1. In seniors, numbers were huge with almost 30 percent, or 15.9 million having it in 2019. 

Now that the bill is headed to the Senate, with Democrats having started to make a case for lowering prices on key prescription drugs. “Democrats have a plan that would finally allow Medicare to negotiate for lower prices for brand-name drugs, focusing on the costliest products that monopolize the market,” argued Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), head of the Senate Finance Committee. Currently, the senator is investigating Big Pharma conglomerates, AbbVie, Bristol Myers Squibb, and Merck, as well as their use of tax code loopholes to avoid paying taxes on prescription drug sales.

With the Build Back Better plan stalled in the voting body and mid-terms several months away, Senate Democrats are working to secure a huge legislative victory by passing the medication cap. In his most recent State of the Union address, President Joe Biden mentioned the $35 dollar insulin price and Medicare’s ability to negotiate prices. That said, time is ticking as the Democratic majority in the Senate is up for grabs.

Yolanda Aguilera focuses on culture, policy, domestic, international relations, and the African and Latin Diasporas.

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