Big Pharma corporations sue to stop Biden’s insulin price cuts
If Big Pharma and its allies in the Chamber of Commerce get their way, Americans will keep paying thousands for their insulin prescriptions. | Rich Pedroncelli / AP

WASHINGTON—Insulin will be a lot cheaper for senior citizens, even if it won’t be for everyone else. But not if Big Pharma and Big Business, also known as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, stop that cut.

Then it’ll go right back to the price Laura Marston, a non-senior who has had Type I diabetes for 27 years, must pay for seven vials of the life-saving medication. A three-month supply costs $2,267.99.

That’s not what Medicare recipients will pay soon. Under the Inflation Reduction Act, which Democratic President Joe Biden jammed through Congress solely on Democratic votes and signed a year ago, they’ll pay Big Pharma only $35 for their insulin.

Biden celebrated the legislation on its one-year anniversary since it also contains a lot of other benefits for everyone, such as $365 billion to combat global warming. But the business lobby, fronting for the drug companies, is suing in federal court to take the insulin price cap away.

And that brought Marston, two other people who also face high costs for other life-saving prescription drugs, and dozens of people contacted by Public Citizen and by the Center for Popular Democracy to the steps of the Chamber of Commerce headquarters in D.C.

They demanded both corporate lobbies drop their lawsuits and let older consumers have the insulin, and other drugs, at lower prices.

“Whose rights are more important?” Marston asked in a sidewalk interview. “Those of for-profit companies or those of ordinary Americans?”

Right now, for all but the seven million diabetics on Medicare, plus people who actually have decent health insurance, the answer is the drug companies.

That’s because the inflation reduction law should apply to her insulin purchases, but doesn’t, Marston said before the event. It featured a presentation of petitions with 150,000 signatures to the Chamber, demanding the lobby back down from its lawsuits and let the price cap go through.

“The Inflation Reduction Act does not help people like me,” who must pay, either by themselves or through their insurers, whatever Big Pharma can get away with, for insulin or anything else, Marston explained.

“I’m fortunate that with employer-provided health care, I can now pay for it,” Marston elaborated. But when she didn’t have health care coverage she had to cash in her 401(k)s, sell her car and her possessions twice, limited her food intake to help stretch her insulin supply, and used expired insulin.

At one point Marston had to borrow $10,000 to pay for the medication. The money didn’t last long. “Without the insulin, I die in a matter of days, and they”—the drug makers—“know that.”

Eli Lilly, one of the Big Pharma firms which supply insulin, manufactures it for $5 a vial.

More Perfect Union reports the Big Pharma-Chamber of Commerce lawsuits are over the Inflation Reduction Act provision that sets Medicare free to bargain the prices of ten selected prescription drugs down. That includes insulin, with the $35 price cap Biden touts as he tours the country extolling the law’s impact for all.

Big Pharma, however, sells nearly 3,500 drugs to Medicare Part D—the prescription drugs program–each year and reaped $216 billion for doing so in 2021, the most recent year available. That revenue included sales of insulin. There was no price cap or Medicare bargaining rights then.

Which means Big Pharma could charge whatever it pleased, like the $2267.99 it charges Marston, or, right now, her insurer. For all but those ten drugs, Big Pharma can still charge anything.

Eli Lilly seems to be at least partially sensitive to consumer and lawmaker blowback against high prices for insulin. Sally Greenberg, president of the National Consumers League, reported in March that Lilly “will cut the list price for its most commonly prescribed insulin, Humalog, and for another insulin, Humulin, by 70% starting in October.”

That’s not good enough for Public Citizen. “In 2003, Big Pharma got a provision in Medicare legislation barring Medicare from negotiating down the price of prescription drugs,” its leader, Robert Weissman, said. The breakthrough on insulin, in last year’s Inflation Reduction Act, was a welcome defeat for the powerful lobby.

But in the meantime, “the ban on bargaining has cost the American people hundreds of billions of dollars” in paying higher drug prices, he declared. “So, in the U.S., three of every ten people have to ration their drugs” because they can’t afford the frequent refills.

The Big Pharma/Chamber of Commerce lawsuits would overturn the insulin price cap and end Medicare’s right to bargain other drug prices down. If the big lobbies win, Weissman added, the consequences for people are real:

“They get sick and they die.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.