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HealthPartners endocrinologist fights rising insulin prices

A diabetes patient himself, Dr. David Tridgell spoke on the issue at a news conference with U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar

At 15 years old, David Tridgell, MD, noticed a change in his body. He had an unquenchable thirst. He began urinating frequently. And he lost about 20 pounds. He had an autoimmune disease that destroyed his ability to produce insulin.

“As someone with type 1 diabetes, I take insulin injections every day,” Dr. Tridgell said. “Patients like me can lead normal lives with the help of medication.”

But as an endocrinologist at Park Nicollet, Dr. Tridgell sees a problem. The cost of insulin has tripled in the last 10 years. And some of his patients can’t afford the medicine they need.

Patients who don’t produce insulin can die without daily insulin shots. And those who produce less insulin than their body needs, which is most people with type 2 diabetes, can lead suffer from heart disease, kidney failure, blindness, nerve damage and amputations due to high blood sugars.

“Doctors spend too much time deciding what patients can afford,” Dr. Tridgell said. “I deal with these issues nearly every day. It can be embarrassing for a patient to admit they can’t afford medication.”

Dr. Tridgell has seen patients shop for unused insulin online. He has other patients who push off retirement. And he has still others who have had to sell some of their possessions.

“I saw one patient who stopped taking their own medication so they could pay for their child’s insulin,” Dr. Tridgell said. “This led to a preventable hospitalization. No parent should be forced to make that type of decision.”

In 1921, the original patent for insulin sold for $1 to the University of Toronto. The goal was to prevent a monopoly. But competition dwindled when insulin was improved. Today, 3 companies make all of the insulin that is produced. And one vial of insulin can sell for about $300.

“A patient with type 1 diabetes typically requires 2 or 3 vials per month,” Dr. Tridgell said. “But some people with type 2 diabetes will need 6 vials a month or more because they are resistant to insulin.”

There are about 29 million Americans with diabetes. That includes 320,000 Minnesotans. Dr. Tridgell joined U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and HealthPartners President and CEO Andrea Walsh for a news conference held at Regions Hospital. Klobuchar supports a bill that would allow Medicare to negotiate lower prices on prescription drugs. Another bill would stop brand-name drug companies from paying to keep generic options off the market.

Dr. Tridgell hopes the extra attention to insulin prices will lead to changes for his patients.

“We need to stop these dramatic price increases. And we need to lower the cost of medications such as insulin,” Dr. Tridgell said. “My patients can’t live without it. And they can’t afford to wait any longer.”

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