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Lawmaker takes aim at high cost of diabetes

U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland talks with parents whose children have been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes following a news conference at the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center on Friday. (Susan Montoya Bryan/Associated Press)

Taxpayers and patients in the U.S. could save millions of dollars a year if they were able to pay what people in other countries do for insulin and other medications required by diabetics, a lawmaker said Friday.

U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, a New Mexico Democrat, released a report she had commissioned from a congressional oversight office on the high costs of diabetes medications in her district, which includes the state’s most populous area.

The review found that the costs are burdening patients – from those on Medicare to those without any insurance.

Haaland said what’s happening to constituents in her district is no different than in countless districts across the country.

Haaland called the findings startling, noting that Medicare does not have the ability to negotiate drug prices, so the costs to the federal program are more than six times higher than in the United Kingdom and nearly nine times more than in Australia, for example.

The average insulin price nearly tripled from 2002 through 2013, and prices have risen 10% or more a year since then, forcing many diabetics to ration their insulin.

Physicians and other experts said Friday that some patients are embarrassed to say they can’t afford the medications and have ended up hospitalized as a result.

“It’s just wrong. Plain and simple,” Haaland said.

The congresswoman outlined the findings while flanked by children and parents who have been dealing with diagnoses of Type 1 diabetes.

About 30 million Americans and more than 420 million people worldwide have diabetes. Most cases are Type 2, the kind tied to obesity. Patients with diabetes don’t produce enough insulin to control their blood sugar, or their body uses insulin inefficiently, forcing them to inject the hormone, usually several times a day.

In Haaland’s district, there are an estimated 17,000 seniors and disabled Medicare beneficiaries who have been diagnosed with diabetes, according to the report.

The top 50 diabetes medications cost the Medicare program and beneficiaries in the district more than $16 million in 2016. The report contends they could see a savings of anywhere from $8 million to $12 million if prices were comparable to what patients pay in neighboring Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia.

Some U.S. lawmakers are pushing to give Medicare authority to negotiate directly with drugmakers for better prices. Also pending is legislation that would reauthorize and increase spending for national diabetes research programs.

“Getting out information I think and raising the issue is the best way we can get all of us to care about this issue,” Haaland said.

James and Kelly Martinez talked about the midnight and 3 a.m. glucose checks they have to do with their two daughters. The family’s insurance deductibles are so high that they end up paying out of pocket for most of what they need.

Katie Bone also has Type 1 diabetes. She remembers feeling achy and thirsty, and getting headaches before her diagnosis. She ended up in urgent care and soon learned – at the age of 11 – what it meant to be diabetic.

Now 13, Katie said Friday she can do anything, but dreams of living in a world where she doesn’t have to change her insulin pump, put on a glucose sensor or take 10 shots a day to stay alive.

Her mom, Tammy Bone, has counted the days – 892 – and all the finger pricks – 3,649 – since her daughter’s diagnosis. She described the disease as unyielding and pervasive.

“There is so much we do not know about diabetes, but what we do know is that insulin is non-negotiable,” she said. “In order to get the very best possible outcomes, people with diabetes need access to affordable insulin and diabetes management tools.”