On Tuesday, President Trump held a press conference announcing a new pilot program for seniors on Medicare that would cap the monthly co-payments of insulin to $35. The announcement was attended by senior executives of two main insulin manufacturers, Eli Lilly and Novo Nordisk, and staff from the American Diabetes Association, as well as the Surgeon General, Jerome Adams.
In typical Trump style, midway through his announcement, he proclaimed, “I don’t use insulin. Should I be? Huh? I never thought about it, but I know a lot of people are very badly affected.” While this comment has created a wave of groans and eye-rolls throughout the diabetes online community, the core of his message is more important: seniors in America will now be more able to comfortably afford their insulin.
For everyone on earth, insulin is a necessary hormone to live. People without diabetes produce insulin endogenously, whereas people with diabetes must take insulin exogenously. Without adequate access to affordable insulin, people with diabetes face serious complications, such as kidney failure, blindness, amputations, and premature death. Unfortunately, the rising costs of insulin over the past few decades have become a major barrier to appropriate management of diabetes. American seniors are some of the hardest hit by the rising costs, who are partially-retired or out of the workforce completely, often trying to survive on smaller, fixed-incomes.
Trump remarked, “Today I’m proud to announce that we have reached a breakthrough agreement to dramatically slash the out-of-pocket cost of insulin. You know what’s happened to insulin over the years, right? Through the roof.”
The pilot program will take effect starting in 2021, and would be part of the enhanced Medicare Part D Senior Savings Model, to which over 1,750 standalone Medicare Part D and Medicare Advantage plans have applied to participate in, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).
This is a welcome respite from the high cost of insulin for American seniors on Medicare, who, despite being covered by health insurance, sometimes have to pay hundreds if not thousands of dollars for their monthly insulin prescriptions.
Despite the multitude of executive orders and policy decisions the Administration has made to chip away the Affordable Care Act, this enhancement of American’s largest healthcare social safety net was met with applause from seniors all across America, many of whom have cooled their support of the President since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and our nation’s response to it. This is an excellent first step to ensuring that our aging Americans can afford the insulin they need to take care of themselves.
It is estimated that Medicare beneficiaries (generally Americans over the age of 65) who use insulin and join a plan participating in this pilot could see average savings of $446, or 66% for their insulin every year. The pilot is funded in part by insulin manufacturers who will pay $250 million in discounts over the five years of the pilot. There has been a positive response from Medicare Part D plans nationwide, and CMS predicts coverage in the pilot will be available in all 50 states, D.C., and Puerto Rico. Medicare beneficiaries will be able to enroll in a pilot-participating plan during traditional Medicare open enrollment, which is October 15th-December 7th, 2020, for Part D coverage that begins on January 1, 2021.
1 in 3 Medicare beneficiaries has diabetes, and over 3.3 million Medicare beneficiaries use one or more types of insulin, so this change isn’t insignificant. Out-of-pocket spending on insulin by seniors in Medicare Part D quadrupled between 2007 and 2016, from $236 million to $968 million, putting a harsh burden on millions.
Seema Verma, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said, “We think that this creates a foundation and a platform to fix some of the problems that we have in the Part D plan (of Medicare). It’s time for that program to be updated.”
While this is a great first step, the pilot is only slated to last for five years, and it will only apply to the Medicare population- generally, people living with diabetes who are 65 and older. This begs the bigger question: how do we afford our insulin before we are eligible for Medicare? How can we ever hope to make it to that point, if insulin is unaffordable every step of the way? Men with type 1 diabetes have an average life expectancy of 66 years, compared with 77 years among men without it. Women with type 1 diabetes have an average life expectancy of 68 years, compared with 81 years for those without diabetes. Realistically, this may not even help people who have diabetes for very long.
We can only hope that this initiative creates enough momentum for the federal government to start capping the actual price of insulin, for the other 7 million Americans who rely on it every day to survive.