SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Gov. Gavin Newsom on Saturday announced the selection of Utah-based generic drug manufacturer Civica to produce low-cost insulin for California, an unprecedented move that makes good on his promise to put state government in direct competition with the brand-name drug companies that dominate the market.
“People should not be forced to go into debt to get lifesaving prescriptions,” Newsom said. “Californians will have access to some of the most inexpensive insulin available, helping them save thousands of dollars each year.”
The contract, with an initial cost of $50 million that Newsom and his fellow Democratic lawmakers approved last year, calls for Civica to manufacture state-branded insulin and make the lifesaving drug available to any Californian who needs it, regardless of insurance coverage, by mail order and at local pharmacies. But insulin is just the beginning. Newsom said the state will also look to produce the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone.
Allan Coukell, Civica’s senior vice president of public policy, told KHN that the nonprofit drugmaker is also in talks with the Newsom administration to potentially produce other generic medications, but he declined to elaborate, saying the company is focused on making cheap insulin widely available first.
“We are very excited about this partnership with the state of California,” Coukell said. “We’re not looking to have 100% of the market, but we do want 100% of people to have access to fair insulin prices.”
As insulin costs for consumers have soared, Democratic lawmakers and activists have called on the industry to rein in prices. Just weeks after President Joe Biden attacked Big Pharma for jacking up insulin prices, the three drugmakers that control the insulin market — Eli Lilly and Co., Novo Nordisk, and Sanofi — announced they would slash the list prices of some products.
Newsom, who has previously accused the pharmaceutical industry of gouging Californians with “sky-high prices,” argued that the launch of the state’s generic drug label, CalRx, will add competition and apply pressure on the industry. Administration officials declined to say when California’s insulin products would be available, but experts say it could be as soon as 2025. Coukell said the state-branded medication will still require approval from the FDA, which can take roughly 10 months.
The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, which lobbies on behalf of brand-name companies, blasted California’s move. Reid Porter, senior director of state public affairs for PhRMA, said Newsom just “wants to score political points.”
“If the governor wants to impact what patients pay for insulins and other medicines meaningfully, he should expand his focus to others in the system that often make patients pay more than they do for medicines,” Porter said, blaming pharmaceutical go-between companies, known as pharmacy benefit managers, that negotiate with manufacturers on behalf of insurers for rebates and discounts on drugs.
The Pharmaceutical Care Management Association, which represents pharmacy benefit managers argued in turn that it’s pharmaceutical companies that are to blame for high prices.
Drug pricing experts, however, say pharmacy benefit managers and drugmakers share the blame.
Newsom administration officials say that inflated insulin costs force some to pay as much as $300 per vial or $500 for a box of injectable pens, and that too many Californians with diabetes skip or ration their medication. Doing so can lead to blindness, amputations, and life-threatening conditions such as heart disease and kidney failure. Nearly 10% of California adults have diabetes.
Civica is developing three types of generic insulin, known as a biosimilar, which will be available both in vials and in injectable pens. They are expected to be interchangeable with brand-name products including Lantus, Humalog, and NovoLog. Coukell said the company would make the drug available for no more than $30 a vial, or $55 for five injectable pens.
Newsom said the state’s insulin will save many patients $2,000 to $4,000 a year, though critical questions about how California would get the products into the hands of consumers remain unanswered, including how it would persuade pharmacies, insurers, and retailers to distribute the drugs.
Last year, Newsom also secured $50 million in seed money to build a facility to manufacture insulin; Coukell said Civica is exploring building a plant in California.
California’s move, though never been tried by a state government, could be blunted by recent industry decisions to lower insulin prices. In March, Lilly, Novo Nordisk, and Sanofi vowed to cut prices, with Lilly offering a vial at $25 per month; Novo Nordisk promising major reductions to bring the price of a particular generic vial to $48; and Sanofi also slashing prices, with one vial pegged at $64.
The governor’s office said it will cost the state $30 per vial to manufacture and distribute insulin and it will be sold at that price. Doing so, the administration argues, “will prevent the egregious cost-shifting that happens in traditional pharmaceutical price games.”
Drug pricing experts said generic production in California could further lower costs for insulin, and benefit people with high-deductible health insurance plans or no insurance.
“This is an extraordinary move in the pharmaceutical industry, not just for insulin but potentially for all kinds of drugs,” said Robin Feldman, a professor at the University of California College of the Law-San Francisco. “It’s a very difficult industry to disrupt, but California is poised to do just that.”
This story was produced by KHN, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.