The 2010s were an extremely good decade for corporate America. Under President Trump, the stock markets rose to achieve new highs in 2019. But for working Americans, the story was quite different. The federal minimum wage did not increase in monetary value from $7.25 in 2010 (and some states now allow corporations to pay workers less). When factoring in inflation, this amounts to a serious decline in real wages for millions of Americans. Worse still, many vital purchases have drastically risen in cost. The median monthly rent for an unfurnished apartment in the U.S. rose by around 50 percent this decade, for example. But perhaps the most concerning price spike has come in lifesaving prescription medicine. A 10 ml vial of insulin from Novo Nordisk has increased from $93 in 2010 to $290 today, despite nothing changing about its product. Similar price spikes have occurred with other American insulin producers Eli Lilly and Sanofi.
The American Diabetes Association estimates there are over 30 million Americans – around 10 percent of the population – who have diabetes (including a quarter of those over 65). When that many people are hooked for life on a product, this translates into enormous profits for big pharma. Insulin is not like many other drugs; once you begin taking it, you are completely dependent on it for the rest of your life. Without it, a swift death is inevitable. It is the ultimate captive market for businesses. How much would you pay to stay alive? For many Americans, the answer is not enough
According to surveys, over one in four American diabetics ration their insulin, putting their lives at risk because they cannot afford the cost of constantly injecting $290 medicine into their bodies. Fatalities are not uncommon; turning 26 can be a death sentence in America, as young people are no longer eligible for healthcare on their parents’ plans, often resorting to reusing costly needles into oblivion to save money.
One such example was Josh Wilkerson, who died in Virginia last June, unable to find the $1,200 per month he needed for insulin on the $16.50 an hour he made working at a dog kennel. He was found dead at his place of work with a blood sugar level 17 times higher than normal. Others in Josh’s position inject themselves with dog insulin to stay alive. In July ESPN published a supposedly inspirational article on up-and-coming mixed martial arts fighter Jordan Williams triumphing over adversity. It casually noted that Williams “doesn’t have medical insurance and cannot afford the treatment. So he buys insulin that’s sold for dogs at Walmart for $24.99 per bottle,” before continuing describing other mountains he had to climb to get to the top.
Other poor Americans are using antibiotics designed for fish in lieu of a universal healthcare system like that in Canada, Australia or Europe. Amazon reviews for the products make it clear how many people are making the choice between their health and their wallet.
Many Americans close to international borders organize convoys to buy cheaper, regulated drugs in neighboring countries. In July Senator Bernie Sanders took a dozen of his fellow Vermonters to Canada to stockpile cheaper insulin. Sanders, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, has promised to get tough on big pharma and establish a socialized healthcare system like those in other developed countries to drastically reduce medical costs for Americans. Hospital bills are the leading cause of bankruptcy in the United States and one-third of all GoFundMe donations are for medical expenses.
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) April 10, 2019
Of particular note is that insulin’s inventor, Frederick Banting, refused to put his name on the patent, feeling it was unethical to profit at all from life saving medicine. He sold the patent to a research institution in 1923 for a symbolic $1, saying, “Insulin belongs to the world, not to me.” Nearly 100 years later, the three American corporations manufacturing Banting’s product mark up their prices by as much as 5,000 percent each.
“They are doing it because they can,” Jing Luo, a researcher at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, told Vox in 2017, “and it’s scary because it happens in all kinds of different drugs and drug classes.” The high price of drugs, unmatched anywhere else in the world, is the perfect embodiment of the logic of capitalism that places profit above all else. In December MintPress News reported on a lawsuit against Gilead Sciences that alleges the pharmaceutical giant deliberately held back safer and more effective HIV medication in order to make billions. On the problem, economist Dean Baker remarked that systemic problems require systemic changes, “Drugs are almost invariably cheap to manufacture. They end up being expensive because of patent and related monopolies,” he said. Until that change comes, insulin prices will likely continue to rise and Americans will continue to suffer.
Feature photo | Oleg1824 | Shutterstock
Alan MacLeod is a MintPress Staff Writer as well as an academic and writer for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. His book, Bad News From Venezuela: Twenty Years of Fake News and Misreporting was published in April.