Amy Roberts: Lack of solutions to diabetes treatment costs is a hard pill to swallow
A few years ago I found myself volunteering to raise money for Utah’s Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
My placement on this fundraising committee was somewhat unusual in the sense that I had no emotional or personal tie to this disease. It’s safe to say most people generally focus their volunteer efforts on causes they either care deeply about or that personally impact them. Brain cancer, wildlife conservation, homeless puppies, environmental efforts, poverty in the developing world, arts and culture — these are the causes that tend to earn my time and money. With only so much of both to go around, Type 1 diabetes just didn’t make the cut. Sure, a cure sounded great, but it also sounded like someone else’s problem.
And then out of nowhere, several people I knew were either diagnosed, or had a child who was diagnosed with Type 1. I found myself listening to their struggles — debilitating seizures, terrifying trips to the emergency room, fighting with insurance companies, dizziness, irritability, fatigue, and the numbers. The numbers are a nightmare. I’m pretty certain having Type 1 qualifies you for an honorary PhD in mathematics.
It was through this arm’s length connection to a disease I knew little about that I ended up on a fundraising committee. I learned a lot about that debilitating disease in the following months. But the physical toll was just the start. It turns out, having a pancreas that doesn’t work the way it should is really expensive — roughly $16,000 per year just for insulin and testing supplies. It’s one of the reasons many diabetics ration their life-saving insulin.
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In the US, the cost of managing chronic diseases like Type 1 diabetes is so astronomical, in late 2018 the state of Utah launched a “Rx Tourism” program to help control costs. The state will pay public employees $500 to travel to Mexico for their specialty medications and pick up the airfare tab for both the employee and a companion. So far, only 10 employees have opted in, but it still saved the state $225,000.
The program makes solid financial sense, assuming the patient is well enough to travel. But it’s a Band-Aid solution to a problem that requires a tourniquet. The real problem is the cost of prescription drugs in the US. It’s the one thing every politician and every voter seem to agree on. There’s vast disagreement about how to fix it, but no one is saying prescription drug prices are reasonable, not even the politicians who gladly pocket the campaign contributions from Big Pharma.
Over the last decade, drug makers have spent roughly $2.5 billion on both lobbying efforts and funding members of Congress. Those efforts have paid off for major pharmaceutical companies who in the US, who enjoy the strongest patent monopolies in the world.
In most countries, a patent is not extended unless the drug company can prove it made a significant scientific advancement. In America, pharmaceutical companies can block their competition for decades by extending monopolies based on non-essential tweaks. It’s a bit like a chef creating a recipe that saves lives. He puts a lot of effort into this life-saving dish, so he doesn’t have to share the recipe for 10 years. Everyone who needs a cure goes to his restaurant. But at the end of the 10 years, instead of sharing the recipe like he agreed to, he decides to add 1/10th of teaspoon of water to it and claims it’s an improved recipe, therefore extending his ability to keep it secret for another 10 years. It seems ludicrous, but then again, so is giving $2.5 billion to members of Congress.
Until these patent laws are reformed by the very people who accept funding from Big Pharma, Americans will continue to pay significantly more for their prescription drugs. And in Utah, public employees will continue to get their state-funded trip to Mexico. They can’t bring tequila back with them, but drugs are just fine.
Amy Roberts is a freelance writer, longtime Park City resident and the proud owner of two rescued Dalmatians, Stanley and Willis. Follow her on Twitter @amycroberts.
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