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Musk’s Twitter chaos tosses outrageous insulin pricing into the spotlight

Advocates held a vigil in September 2019 outside of Eli Lillys' offices in New York City, honoring those who have lost their lives due to the high cost of insulin and demanding lower insulin prices.
Enlarge / Advocates held a vigil in September 2019 outside of Eli Lillys’ offices in New York City, honoring those who have lost their lives due to the high cost of insulin and demanding lower insulin prices.

Social media platform Twitter has been mired by uncertainty and disorder in the few, yet lengthy, days since billionaire Elon Musk took the helm. But above the din of fake accounts and capricious policy changes, a fury-fueled dialogue has erupted on the platform over what is, perhaps, an unexpected topic—the exorbitant price of insulin.

Early Thursday afternoon (EST), an account posing as pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, with the Twitter handle @EliLillyandCo, the company’s logo, and blue checkmark by its name—which formerly only signaled verification of the account’s identity but has since marked accounts of those who simply paid an $8 subscription fee—tweeted the enticing but false claim: “We are excited to announce insulin is free now.”

The tweet, which stayed publicly viewable for at least four hours, began a viral spread, garnering at least 1,798 retweets and 12,800 likes before the account was set to protected, meaning that only approved followers can see its tweets. The account currently shows zero followers.

In the ensuing time, the real, verified Eli Lilly Account, with the handle @LillyPad, acknowledged the false information in a 4:09 pm tweet. “We apologize to those who have been served a misleading message from a fake Lilly account. Our official Twitter account is @LillyPad.”

Verified outrage

But, it wasn’t enough to dam the flood of outrage and scorn over the all-too-real prices of insulin in the US. “Apologize to diabetics for price gouging,” one Twitter user responded. “Why don’t you make affordable insulin instead of apologizing?” another tweeted in a growing pile-on.

The reason for the backlash is painfully obvious. Insulin, a hormone made by the body to process and use blood sugar (glucose), can be a vital drug to the 37.3 million Americans who have diabetes, which is a set of conditions that, broadly speaking, disrupts the ability of the body’s cells to use sugar. About 8.4 million Americans rely on insulin to survive, according to the American Diabetes Association. Generally, it costs $10 or less to make a vial of insulin. Yet, patients in the US can easily see monthly insulin bills of hundreds of dollars.

For instance, the list price for Eli Lilly’s brand-name product Humalog U-100 is $274.70 for a single 10 mL vial. People with diabetes often require two, three, or more vials per month. A five-pack of 3 mL Humalog U-100 KwikPens has a list price of $530.40. Eli Lilly also has a non-branded generic product, called Lispro Injection U-100, which has list prices of $82.41 for a single 10 mL vial or  $159.12 for a five-pack of 3 mL—and those are relatively bargain prices. Eli Lilly just recently reduced Lispro’s list price, dropping them 40 percent in 2021 amid public backlash.

No quick fix

The cost can be an enormous burden on many Americans’ expenses. Worse, it leads some to skimp on how much insulin they use compared with what they need to control their blood sugar to a healthy level. This can be a life-threatening gamble. Yet, a recent study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that a stunning 1.3 million Americans—over 15 percent of those who use insulin—rationed their insulin, putting their lives at risk.

There is help on the way—for some. The Inflation Reduction Act, signed into law in August, will cap the out-of-pocket costs of insulin for people on Medicare to just $35 a month, starting in 2023. But proposed caps for those with commercial insurance were scrapped, and there’s no protection for those who are uninsured. This is particularly concerning given that the Annals of Internal Medicine study found that those most likely to ration insulin are people under the age of 65, who are not yet eligible for Medicare.

The outrage, thus, continues on Twitter amid the din of the platform’s chaos. Thursday evening, another blue-checkmark account posing as Eli Lilly with the handle LiIlyPadCo, tweeted a parody of the drug maker’s apology, writing: “We apologize to those who were have been served a misleading message from a fake Lilly account about the cost of diabetic care. Humalog is now $400. We can do this whenever we want and there’s nothing you can do about it. Suck it. Our official Twitter account is @LiIlyPadCo.” Amid replies, the account responded, “$500 now. You want to keep going?” The account has since been suspended.

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