Six-month reprieve from price hike on popular diabetes drug

Thousands of Australians with type 1 diabetes will receive six more months of subsidised access to a popular medication they say allows them to live a normal life, before it is withdrawn from the pharmaceutical benefits scheme and the price soars from $30 to $230 a month.

The federal government has made a legal supply order that means drug manufacturer Novo Nordisk’s fast-acting insulin product Fiasp – which is used by about 14,000 people – will remain on PBS until October.

Health Minister Mark Butler said the government would do everything it could to ensure there was an equivalent product on the PBS when the six-month legal order expired.

Simon Schluter

The pharmaceutical giant had planned to remove the drug from the PBS from April 1, saying it was no longer commercially viable to leave it on the scheme due to government price cuts.

Thousands of people were blindsided this month by the manufacturer’s controversial decision, which will lift the yearly cost of their insulin by more than $2000, saying they were left with little time to make alternative arrangements.

In contrast to older types of insulin, which will remain on the PBS, fast-acting insulin products such as Fiasp regulate blood sugar more quickly. This allows people with diabetes to administer it immediately before eating, rather than at least half an hour before, and gives faster relief from a spike or crash.

Health Minister Mark Butler, who has previously indicated he only learnt of the manufacturer’s decision on February 22, said on Friday it “was a shock to us that the company would take this action, particularly so quickly”.

However, the Health Department had been communicating about the issue with Novo Nordisk for several months prior.

Novo Nordisk’s decision came after the government’s pharmaceutical advisory council cut the price it would pay for Fiasp by about 36 per cent – a level the company said was too low and priced below older forms of insulin.

Butler said the company’s move was about “money at the end of the day” and the government could not force Novo Nordisk to list its products on the PBS.

“These companies, although they’re often very well-intentioned … at the end of the day they’re focused on profit as well. So they’ve taken a commercial decision,” he told 2GB radio.

The share price of Novo Nordisk, which also supplies popular type 2 diabetes and weight-loss drug Ozempic, has more than tripled in five years.

Sources who wished not to be named because they were not authorised to speak with media said the government secured six more months’ supply of Fiasp by paying the Danish company a price lower than the initial PBS price, but higher than the revised amount that prompted the company to take it off the scheme.

Butler said the government would do everything it could to ensure there was an equivalent product on the PBS when the six-month legal order expired.

“We know how hard it is right now to get in to see a doctor, very little time to make alternative arrangements, and I know how deeply distressing that’s been for those families,” he said.

A spokesman for Novo Nordisk said the company understood people were disappointed, but blamed the government for pricing Fiasp below older insulins.

“This decision devalues the patient experiences of Fiasp and devalues new, innovative medicines that bring benefits over older treatments,” he said. “We continue to work with the federal government to find an enduring solution so patients have equitable access to innovative treatments.”

Diabetes Australia chief executive Justine Cain said she appreciated Butler’s intervention and hoped the government and Novo Nordisk could come to an agreement that kept the product on the PBS.

People who use Fiasp will have to secure a prescription from their doctor before April 1 to continue accessing it at the reduced price until the end of September.

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