Catherine Hayley is saving up for an important purchase: an improved version of the tiny digital pump at her waist that delivers lifesaving insulin under her skin.
Such devices, which tailor insulin dosing more precisely to the body’s needs, have transformed the lives of people with Type 1 diabetes like Ms. Hayley. But as diabetics live longer, healthier lives and worries fade about dreaded complications like heart attacks, kidney failure, amputations and blindness, they have been replaced by another preoccupation: soaring treatment costs.
“It looks like a beeper,” said Ms. Hayley, a 36-year-old manager here for an environmental services company, referring to the vintage 2007 pump on the waistband of her jeans. “It’s made of plastic and runs on triple-A batteries, but it’s the most expensive thing I own, aside from my house.”
A new model, along with related treatment supplies, prices out at tens of thousands of dollars for this year and will cost her about $5,000, even with top-notch insurance. “It’s great,” Ms. Hayley said, “but it all adds up.”
Traditionally, insurers lost money by covering people with chronic illnesses, because they often ended up hospitalized with myriad complications as their diseases progressed. Today, the routine care costs of many chronic illnesses eclipse that of acute care because new treatments that keep patients well have become a multibillion-dollar business opportunity for device and drug makers and medical providers.
The high price of new treatments for diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, colitis and other chronic diseases contribute mightily to the United States’ $2.7 trillion annual health care bill.
More than 1.5 million Americans have Type 1 diabetes and cannot survive without frequent insulin doses, so they are utterly dependent on a small number of producers of supplies and drugs, which have great leeway to set prices. (Patients with the far more common Type 2 diabetes — linked to obesity — still produce insulin and can improve with lifestyle changes and weight loss, or on oral medicines.)
That captive audience of Type 1 diabetics has spawned lines of high-priced gadgets and disposable accouterments, borrowing business models from technology companies like Apple: Each pump and monitor requires the separate purchase of an array of items that are often brand and model specific.
A steady stream of new models and updates often offer dubious improvement: colored pumps; talking, bilingual meters; sensors reporting minute-by-minute sugar readouts. Ms. Hayley’s new pump will cost $7,350 (she will pay $2,500 under the terms of her insurance). But she will also need to pay her part for supplies, including $100 monitor probes that must be replaced every week, disposable tubing that she must change every three days and 10 or so test strips every day.
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