JONESBORO -- Insulin prices rose by 54% between 2013 and 2018, making it even more difficult for diabetic patients to purchase the crucial medicine.

The Arkansas Center for Health Improvement found that insulin prices increased from $401 in 2013 to $617 in 2018.

In Craighead County, 15,410 people reported having diabetes in a survey by the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. Diabetes is particularly prevalent in the Mississippi Delta, including the Jonesboro area, said Appathurai Balamurugan, the acting chief medical officer and state chronic disease director at the Arkansas Department of Health.

"We have reached an epidemic," Balamurugan said.

About 300,000 Arkansans have diabetes, Balamurugan said. People who have diabetes incur 2.3 times more medical costs than those who don't, according to the state health department.

Chithu Duvoor, a St. Bernards Medical Center endocrinologist, sees almost 20 diabetic patients daily, he said. Many of his patients go to Canada for their prescriptions when the prices are too expensive.

Sometimes people resort to cutting their insulin prescriptions due to the high price of the drug. Patients might also quit taking their insulin altogether, said Mandy Leonard, a certified diabetes educator at St. Bernards Medical Center.

"You know if they have to choose food over medicine they will," Leonard said.

Leonard said her mother, who has diabetes, was unable to afford the long-acting insulin prescription that her doctor recommended. The prescription would have cost her $500 a month.

These expensive medications are priced out of reach for diabetics who are disabled and on a fixed income like her mother, Leonard said.

"I've seen people go off their insulin because they can't afford it, and then they end up in the hospital," Leonard said.

Diabetics' bodies don't make insulin on their own. Insulin converts sugar in food into energy needed in every cell in the body, according to the state health department website.

Manufacturers, distributors and pharmacy benefits managers have been questioned about the rising cost of insulin, Balamurugan said.

"And it's been pushed to consumers who feel the brunt of it," Balamurugan said.

Pharmaceutical companies often argue that they have to price newer medications, and medications designed for people with rare diseases, higher because of the research associated with producing the drugs.

But insulin is a decades-old medication that has an established patient base, said Joe Thompson, Arkansas Center for Health Improvement president and CEO.

"People think it's because they need more money to fund the research but really there's nothing new," Duvoor said.

Thompson said this is a problem that stems from the federal government's protection of insurance companies.

"Congress needs to take a closer look at this to increase transparency and help Americans understand where their pharmacy dollars are going," Thompson said.

At least two states, Illinois and Colorado, capped prices for insulin, according to the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement.

To combat the cost of insulin, Balamurugan recommends that his patients check on manufacturer websites for coupons. Patients can also use GoodRx, an app that compares retail drug prices, to shop for cheaper brands.

Prescriptions are overpriced throughout the spectrum of drug categories, Thompson said. The issue affects anyone who uses medications to treat a chronic condition.

"People are feeling the burden due to the price increase," Balamurugan said. "It's important that all of us be part of the solution."

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