When You Can’t Afford Insulin: Options and Advice

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If you have diabetes and require insulin therapy, you know how expensive insulin can be. What if you can’t afford your insulin? Are there options? Here’s an overview of the cost considerations for this life-saving drug for people with diabetes.

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The cost of insulin

Retail prices for the most commonly prescribed, newer insulin drugs insulin are high, leaving some people unable to afford it. According to GoodRx — which surveys pharmacies for current drug prices — the retail prices for popular brands range from $200 to as much as $550 for one 10ml vial or a box of three pre-filled pens with 5ml of insulin. Some people with diabetes need several vials or boxes per month.

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Prices comparison of common types of insulin

Estimates are based on the price of one 10ml vial or three 5ml pens.

Rapid-acting or “bolus” insulin: Humalog ($340); Novolin ($300 - $550); Apidra ($200 - $425)

Short-acting insulin: Regular (R), Novalin (R), and ReliOn (R): $25

Intermediate-acting insulin: NPH (N), Novalin (N), and ReliOn (N): $25

Long-acting or “basal” insulin: Lantus ($190 - $280); Levemir ($300 - $450); Toujeo ($300)

Pre-mixed intermediate/short acting combination: Humulin (70/30), Novolog (70/30), and Humalog (75/25): $100 - $335; ReliOn (70/30): $25

(Source: GoodRx.com and Walmart, July 2018)

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Considering your options

Monthly costs quickly add up, especially when you include the cost of copays and the other diabetic supplies such as testing strips, syringes, pumps, and continuous glucose monitor kits. Situations may arise when you just can't afford your medication. You may have lost your medical insurance, or you're between insurance plans, and can't afford the retail price of your prescribed insulin. Or you can't afford the insurance co-pay for your prescription. If the cost of your insulin is a problem, there are several options.

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Talk to your healthcare provider

If you have a short-term problem paying for your insulin, talk to your healthcare provider. They may be able to provide you with enough drug samples to help you through a short-term situation or provide help in getting assistance from various prescription assistance programs.

If you are facing a longer-term difficulty paying for higher-cost insulin drugs, your doctor can also work with you to switch you to the lower-cost, older insulin drugs as a more affordable treatment option for your diabetes.

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Check with your pharmacy

They may offer some type of discount. If you use insulin pens, you may also want to find out the cost of using vials and syringes instead of pens, as it may be less costly.

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Check into drug company patient assistance programs

Most drug companies have a patient assistance program to help offset the cost of their drugs. For insulin, you may be able to get a low or $0 copay, percentage-off coupons, a flat-rate cost for every time you get a refill, or in some cases your medication may even be free if you meet their qualifications.

These programs can save you a significant amount of money. For example, the long-acting insulin that I use, Lantus, is made by Sanofi. Lantus is pricey, and the retail price of just one vial of Lantus runs around $300, according to GoodRx.

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How pharma company assistance programs work

My insurance co-pay of $30 per month just for Lantus adds up. Sanofi has a patient assistance program for Lantus. Because I have health insurance, I can get a discount card that allows me to get the medication with a $0 copay. In my case, that’s a savings of $360 a year. If you are paying out-of-pocket with no insurance, you can use the Lantus card to pay only $99 for a vial, or $149 for a box of five pre-filled insulin pens, versus $250 or more per vial or box. You can sign up for Sanofi’s Lantus program at their site. I also use the rapid-acting insulin Humalog, from Eli Lilly, which runs from around $250 to $300 a month. LillyCares program helps offset costs of Humalog for lower-income patients who qualify. You can review the qualifications and sign up for LillyCares on their website.

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More drug company assistance programs

If you are interested in researching programs for drugs you are taking, the American Diabetes Association has a detailed list of drug company and other prescription assistance programs. The Affordable Insulin Project also maintains a helpful list of patient assistance programs.

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Explore drug coupons and other drug assistance programs

In addition to the drug companies, there are other patient assistance programs, discount cards, coupons, and other ways you can save on the cost of your insulin. Again, start at the American Diabetes Association’s list of prescription assistance programs to find programs that may fit your needs.

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Switch to older, lower-cost insulin

If you have been prescribed the newer brand name insulin drugs but can’t afford them, you may want to discuss switching to the older types of insulins still on the market. Long-acting basal insulin is not available, but you can get short-acting bolus insulin, and intermediate-acting insulin. These drugs are available at very low cost.

For example, the GoodRx site shows pharmacies selling Novolin (R) short-acting insulin, and Novolin (N) intermediate acting-insulin at the average price of around $25 per vial.

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Walmart pharmacies

Walmart pharmacies have their own brand of older types of insulin. Sold under the name of ReliOn, both ReliOn (R) short-acting, and Relion (N) intermediate-acting insulin retail for around $25 a vial as well. The Diabetes Council has put together a detailed overview of everything you need to know about ReliOn insulin.

(Another money-saving tip: Walmart's ReliOn line also includes low-priced blood glucose testing meters, test strips, and insulin syringes.)

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Differences between newer and older insulins

Be aware that using these older insulins requires more blood sugar monitoring and careful dosing. These older insulins are also associated with increased risks of low blood sugar and weight gain, so they are not ideal. But with careful use, they are a viable alternative when you can’t afford the newer insulin drugs.

A final note about the older insulin drugs: Except in Alaska, you can purchase them at a pharmacy without a doctor’s prescription.