Medically Approved

Are insulin prices about to go down?

Dog with woman administering insulin

A new option could mean cost savings for people with diabetes

Jennifer Thomas

By Jennifer Thomas

It’s no secret that insulin is expensive. And it has only gotten more so in recent years. Between 2002 and 2013 alone, the price of this lifesaving medication nearly tripled.

That’s a problem. More than 40% of people with diabetes struggle to afford their insulin, according to a recent survey by Diabetes Daily. And 62% feel that their insurance doesn’t adequately cover it.

Worse yet, the high cost can lead people with diabetes to ration their medication, which means less blood sugar control and more risk for complications, according to the American Diabetes Association. (If you need help affording your diabetes medication, the coupons in our app can help you save. Download it now to get started.)

In a market with high prices, one thing that could help consumers is more competition. A new insulin recently approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration could help drive prices down.

The medication is called Semglee® (insulin glargine-yfgn). It’s the first biosimilar insulin that can be substituted for the more expensive brand-name insulin Lantus® (insulin glargine) without needing permission from the prescriber. It will be available by the end of this year. And that’s good news for consumers.

What is a biosimilar insulin?

In general, biosimilar medications are considered very similar in function and structure to another medication. Generic medication, on the other hand, has to be virtually identical to its brand-name version. They also have to be shown to be just as safe and effective.

And like generic medications, biosimilars tend to be more affordable. When a biosimilar is introduced, it’s usually 15% to 35% cheaper than the brand-name medication it mimics, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

While that’s more expensive than some generic insulins, it’s still a big savings, says Diana Isaacs, PharmD. She’s a spokesperson for the Association of Diabetes Care and Education Specialists (ADCES).

Semglee costs $147.98 for a 5-pack of 3 mL pens and $98.65 for a 10 mL vial. Compare that to Lantus, which costs $425.31 for 5 pens and $283.56 for a vial.

Lantus has another biosimilar medication, Basaglar®, which costs $326.36 for a pack of 3 mL pens. Unlike Semglee, Basaglar can’t be substituted for Lantus at the pharmacy without a doctor’s approval.

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Why aren’t there more biosimilar or generic insulins?

One of the main reasons there aren’t more options is that these medications cost more to make.

Insulin is made by using live organisms such as bacteria or yeast. So it’s harder to copy than synthetic medications. “Because of the highly technical nature of this biologic insulin process, it’s very challenging to replicate without infringing on copyrighted material,” says Evan Sisson, PharmD. He’s a certified diabetes care and education specialist and a professor at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Pharmacy in Richmond.

The upside: Semglee’s approval could encourage more drugmakers to try.

How will Semglee impact insulin prices?

More competition in the prescription drug market is almost always a good thing for pricing, Isaacs says. Plus, Semglee is the first injectable insulin that’s made by a company outside of Eli Lilly, Novo Nordisk or Sanofi.

With more companies such as Mylan Pharmaceuticals making insulin, there will be more options. That means lower prices will likely follow.

Isaacs also thinks that increased advocacy around lowering the cost of insulin will help.

“Many people need insulin to live. The high cost negatively impacts health outcomes when people can’t afford the life-sustaining medication they need,” she says. “I am optimistic that we are headed in the right direction.”

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Additional sources
American Diabetes Association insulin access statement: Diabetes Care (2018). “Insulin access and affordability working group: conclusions and recommendations”
Insulin affordability survey results: Diabetes Daily
FDA press release for Semglee: U.S. Food and Drug Administration