Drug maker Eli Lilly is slashing the price of insulin and capping out-of-pocket costs to $35 per month, even if they are uninsured.

This recently announced price cut could bring a boon to El Paso, where nearly 17% of the adult population has been diagnosed with diabetes. That’s higher than both the state and national rate. An estimated 23% of El Paso County’s population is also uninsured, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The cost of insulin has skyrocketed in recent decades and Congress has put the pharmaceutical industry under pressure to lower the cost of life-saving medication. 

In January, the Biden administration passed the Inflation Reduction Act, which capped the out-of-pocket cost of insulin to $35 for seniors enrolled in Medicare. Eli Lilly excludes people with government insurance, such as Medicaid recipients, from the $35 monthly cap, according to a company press release.

People without insurance are eligible if they sign up for Eli Lilly’s copay assistance program.

Sandra Gonzalez, executive director of El Paso Center for Diabetes, said the price of medication can deter people from taking their insulin. While not everyone who has diabetes needs to take insulin, access to medication is a life-or-death situation for people with Type 1 diabetes.

“Right now there are just so many people for different situations, even $25 can be a lot for them,” Gonzalez said. “It’s expensive, so they have to pick and choose. They might pick a gallon of milk and bread and go one month without insulin, and say they’ll figure it out, which is not good.”

Gonzalez knows one parent who crossed the border to Mexico to buy insulin for their son because they couldn’t afford it in El Paso. Even though the parent had insurance, it didn’t completely cover their son’s medication, Gonzalez said. 

Luis Enrique Jimenez Armendariz, a pharmacist at Farmacias Similares’ Avenida Juárez location, receives numerous customers from the United States every day. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

On the pricier end, a vial of insulin can cost more than $300. Some people who can’t afford their medication are forced to go to the emergency room to treat high blood sugar, Gonzalez said. 

Eli Lilly plans to cut the price of Humalog, the company’s most commonly prescribed insulin, by 70%. A 10-milliliter vial of Humalog U-100 retails for more than $274, according to Eli Lilly’s website.

Low costs could also be a persuasive factor for people who are afraid of taking insulin. Gonzalez described many seniors who visit the diabetes center in El Paso as fearful.

“They think once they’re on insulin, diabetes is death,” she said. “We try to teach them, you can still manage your diabetes, don’t let diabetes manage you. You are in control of your body.”

Following Eli Lilly’s announcement, President Joe Biden released a statement calling on other drug makers to lower their prices.

Salvador Ramirez shows a vial of a long-acting insulin that he takes to manage his diabetes. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Only three manufacturers – Eli Lilly, Novo Nordisk and Sanofi – supply insulin in the United States and control the market. Between 2007 and 2018, the cost of some insulin products increased by more than 200%, according to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association

Eli Lilly began capping monthly out-of-pocket costs in 2020 because of the pandemic, but restricted it from people with government health insurance. The new insulin price cuts come months after the company was involved in a couple of high-publicity events.

In August, a jury found Eli Lilly liable for defrauding Medicaid and ordered the drug manufacturer to pay $61 million in damages. A whistleblower’s lawsuit accused the company of making false claims about pricing under Medicaid’s drug rebate program.

Two months later, the topic of insulin pricing trended online after a Twitter user impersonating Eli Lilly tweeted, “We are excited to announce insulin is free now.” The viral tweet tanked Eli Lilly’s share price, wiping billions off the company’s value.

Priscilla Totiyapungprasert is a health reporter at El Paso Matters and Report for America corp member. She previously covered food and environment at The Arizona Republic. You can follow her on social...