Walmart said Tuesday it would offer a cheaper version of insulin that could better fit the budgets of millions of Americans who don’t have health insurance or are struggling to pay for the life-saving diabetes drug.
Starting this week, the retailer will be selling an exclusive private label version of the analog insulin, ReliOn NovoLog, to adults and children who have a prescription. The drug will be available from membership-based Sam’s Club in mid-July. The insulin costs about $ 73 for a vial or about $ 86 for a pack of pre-filled insulin pens.
The insulin is the latest addition to Walmart’s own diabetes product brand ReliOn. It already sells an inexpensive version of insulin for around $ 25 as part of the product line, but that’s an older formulation that some doctors and proponents say isn’t as effective as newer versions of insulin at treating blood sugar fluctuations , which are called analogs.
With the move, Walmart will shift its longstanding “everyday low-cost” focus on a drug that is a medical necessity for a growing number of Americans. More than 34 million people in the United States – or nearly 11% of the population – have diabetes, and about 1.5 million Americans are diagnosed each year, according to the American Diabetes Association. That percentage among Walmart buyers is around 14%, Walmart’s vice president of health and wellness Warren Moore said in a phone call.
As the number of people with diabetes increases, the cost of the 100-year-old drug has skyrocketed rather than decreased and has been scrutinized by lawmakers. The annual cost of insulin for people with type 1 diabetes in the United States nearly doubled from $ 2,900 in 2012 to $ 5,700 in 2016, according to the latest data from the Health Care Cost Institute. Some of the leading insulin manufacturers, including Sanofi and Eli Lilly, were grilled by politicians during Congressional hearings over price increases for the critical drug. In some cases, companies have responded to the criticism by introducing limited, reduced pricing programs.
Dr. Cheryl Pegus, Walmart’s executive vice president of Health and Wellness, said the Walmart version of the drug will expand access to health care as it falls below the typical price and makes analog insulin available to more people. She said Walmart worked directly with manufacturer Novo Nordisk to cut costs. The price difference from brand competitors will be up to $ 101 per vial of insulin or up to $ 251 per pack of pre-filled insulin pens, Pegus said.
“We hope this award will improve and hopefully revolutionize the accessibility and affordability of insulin,” she said in a call to reporters. “We know that many people with diabetes have difficulty coping with this chronic condition because of the financial burden they have.”
Walmart, already the largest employer and grocer in the country, has made a major foray into the healthcare sector to leverage its massive reach for other money-making opportunities. It has opened 20 clinics in addition to its stores offering budget-friendly medical care, such as $ 30 annual checkups or $ 25 dental cleanings. It bought a telemedicine company, MeMD, for an undisclosed amount in May to enable virtual care. And it has previously put pressure on the pharmacy industry by launching a prescription program that sells monthly supplies of many widely used generic drugs for $ 4.
But the retail giant operates in a complex industry that has tripped other large, influential companies. Haven, a joint venture between Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and JPMorgan Chase, broke up earlier this year, about three years after the companies announced plans to disrupt healthcare with lower costs and improved outcomes.
Walmart has lost some of the key talent it has recruited to guide and grow its health and wellness efforts, including Sean Slovenski, formerly Senior Vice President of Walmart Health and Wellness; and Dr. Tom Van Gilder, who had become his first full-time chief medical officer.