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Insulin Injustice: Warnock Tells Us About His Fight for Fair Prices for Diabetic Patients

The U.S. senator talked to Capital B Atlanta about his hopes to make the drug cheaper nationwide.

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia says he's seen firsthand the effect insulin costs can have on people. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Diabetes is a big problem in Georgia, sending thousands of people to hospitals and emergency rooms every year. And the price of insulin — the life-saving drug that helps diabetes patients control their blood sugar — continues to soar. Research suggests at least 14% of people spend upward of 40% of their annual income to manage their diabetes, including the cost of insulin. 

The epidemic has also had a disproportionate impact on Black people, who are more likely to die from the disease than white people. It’s something U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia sees affecting people in his own life as the pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church.

Warnock, who is fighting to cap monthly out-of-pocket insulin costs for all users at $35, said he’s sat at the bedsides of ailing church members with diabetes who simply needed more help accessing health care and “stood in waiting rooms with families when they’ve gotten the news that their loved one will probably need to get an amputation.” 

“Diabetics have to pay as much as $6,000 a year just for insulin,” Warnock said. “So getting this [bill] across the finish line … will make a huge difference in the lives of ordinary people, people I know, people I preach to every Sunday. They’re the ones I keep in mind.”

He shared their stories — and more about his push to fight the cost of insulin with his “Affordable Insulin Now” legislation — in a conversation with Capital B Atlanta. The interview below has been edited for length and clarity. 

Capital B: Can you give me a general overview of the insulin legislation that you passed last year? 

Sen. Raphael Warnock: Well, I’m very proud of the fact that last summer we passed my legislation that caps the cost of insulin for folks on Medicare to no more than $35 per month of out-of-pocket costs. This is transformational for a lot of people. Georgia’s a state where 12% of the adults have diabetes, about a million people, and everybody knows somebody with diabetes. 

And here’s the thing: When you need insulin, you need insulin. But we literally have people in our country and in our state rationing insulin because they can’t afford it. So I’m glad that my legislation, passed last Congress, caps the cost for folks on Medicare for seniors. 

Now tell me about the most recent bill you put forward in March and what’s different about it. 

I’ve introduced a bipartisan piece of legislation. I’m joined by my partner and friend in the Senate, John Kennedy of Louisiana. This legislation that he and I have put forward will cap the cost of insulin for everybody. For folks who have insurance, for people who do not have insurance, this is a serious issue in our country. It’s something that we can address, and I hope we can get this legislation quickly over the finish line.

Do you anticipate any pushback from Republicans? 

Well, I had seven Republican senators vote with me the last time, which is a big deal these days in the Senate. 

And this time my partner in this is Republican Sen. John Kennedy. In addition to that, we’ve seen several states, many of them red states, already capped the cost of insulin. Red states like Utah and Alabama and Oklahoma. 

This is not a partisan issue, and there’s really no reason why we can’t get this done. I remain hopeful that we’ll get it done sooner than later.

Statistics show Black people are more likely to die from diabetes than white people. How do you see this legislation addressing that? And what else do you think should be done to help the disproportionate amount of Black people who are impacted by diabetes in the United States?

Diabetes really is an entry point, if you will, into a whole range of chronic diseases that disproportionately impact African Americans. Kidney disease, a whole range of concerns, hypertension. Diabetes is the leading cause of blindness, when we see amputations — a whole range of health care issues. 

The larger landscape in Georgia is a situation in which we haven’t expanded Medicaid. We’ve got some 600,000 Georgians in the health care coverage gap. These are mostly working class people and as a result of that, Black people, people of Georgia are dying unnecessarily. 

My legislation will cap the cost of insulin so that people are no longer rationing insulin, a drug that is a matter of life and death if you need it. It’s a drug that was invented 100 years ago. The patent was sold for $1. There’s no reason for pharmaceutical companies to be price gouging insulin, and this legislation will address that.

Let’s talk more about that human impact. I understand that members of your congregation at Ebenezer Baptist Church helped inspire this bill. Tell me about some of the health accessibility issues you’ve witnessed in the Black faith community that led to this policy. 

Well, I often say to people that I’m not a senator who used to be a pastor, I’m a pastor in the Senate. The same values and commitments that have guided my life and my work over the decades as a pastor still are with me, and I return every Sunday to my pulpit. It is my engagement with parishioners there that continues to fuel my passion even in the midst of the craziness of politics in Washington. 

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stood at the bedsides of patients and held the hands of my own parishioners who were dealing with diabetes or some of the consequences of diabetes. I’ve stood in waiting rooms with families when they’ve gotten the news that their loved one will probably need to get an amputation. I’ve been there. 

Certain lifestyle changes, like eating more fruits and vegetables and exercising, can help prevent diabetes. But in Atlanta, many Black neighborhoods lack healthy food options and grocery stores. What sorts of legislative solutions do you think you can bring to Congress that can help address food access and food insecurity?

Well, food access, food insecurity, food deserts are also another issue I’ve been focused on for years. It’s something that I’ve addressed in the Senate, and I’ve addressed again, also, as a pastor at my church. I was meeting with farmers not long ago and invited them to come and bring a farmer’s market to my church on Sunday mornings. 

But let me be very clear, while it is important to eat right and to exercise, you can do all of those things and still have diabetes. 

I think of my young friend, Evan, a 9-year-old, who has been very brave and engaged in this fight with me. He was diagnosed with diabetes at age 2. I don’t want us to oversimplify what’s going on here. You can do all of those things and still have diabetes. 

So it’s important for us to get this legislation across the finish line and to ensure that in the United States of America, we don’t have people doing what Lacey, another friend of mine who’s working with me on this issue, [is doing]. … As a college student, she found herself in dimly lit parking lots, meeting up with people she met on Facebook to get insulin. Not some shadowy drugs, some illicit drug — insulin. This should not be the case in the United States of America.