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Bill would allow lower-priced insulin to be imported

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Injecting insulin
A syringe to inject insulin.
Alex Kolyer for MPR News 2011

As Congress grills drug companies about the high cost of prescription medications, U.S. Rep. Peter Welch of Vermont introduced legislation on Thursday that would allow for the importation of low-cost insulin from Canada and other countries for people with diabetes.

The average price of insulin nearly tripled in the U.S. between 2002 and 2013, according to the American Diabetes Association. The price spike has led some diabetes patients to ration the drug or skip taking it, Welch said.

"Prices for insulin have gone through the roof and are hammering diabetes patients who cannot live without this life-saving medicine yet cannot afford to pay for it," Welch, a Democrat, said in a written statement. "This commonsense legislation bypasses big Pharma's pricing monopoly by making available to patients safe, lower-cost insulin."

A 26-year-old Minnesota man died from diabetes complications in 2017 because he struggled to afford his insulin prescription, his family said. In Vermont, Elia Marquis, 39, who has type 1 diabetes, now pays $2,015 out-of-pocket a month for the drug until she meets her deductible, meaning she spends about $6,000 a year on insulin alone, on top of other medical expenses and higher premium health insurance.

"Ethically it's wrong, it's wrong," she said on Tuesday.

The bill, which is co-sponsored by Republican U.S. Rep. Francis Rooney, of Florida, would allow for the importation of affordable and safe insulin from Canada and eventually other qualified countries by wholesale distributors, pharmacies and individuals. The proposal requires the Food and Drug Administration to certify the insulin exporters. Patients would need a prescription for the drug and be eligible for insurance coverage, he said.

Approximately 7.5 million Americans who have diabetes rely on insulin, according to the diabetes association. It's estimated that about a quarter of them are rationing -- either reducing the dosage of insulin or the frequency with which they take it, said Dr. William Cefalu, the association's chief scientific, medical and mission officer in a written statement. Rationing the medication can lead to serious complications and even death, if not addressed, he said.

"Diabetes is not a choice, and insulin is a life-sustaining medication, not a luxury," he said.

The American Medical Association has called on the government to investigate the rising insulin price.

Two major drug companies -- Eli Lilly and Sanolfi -- did not immediately return emails seeking comment.

A spokesperson from Novo Nordisk said the drug company has not seen the legislation but options are available for people who need help purchasing insulin at a lower cost.

"However, we recognize that more needs to be done across the health care system for people who are struggling to pay for medicine," said Ken Inchausti, director of corporate communications.