Insulin costs hurdle for seniors with diabetes

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By Steve Twedt / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

PITTSBURGH — Dolores Suvak retired from her job as a high school English teacher in the Woodland Hills School District in 2006 with a generous retirement package that included an additional 10 years of health coverage under her school employees’ plan.

Then came year 11.

Suvak, 68, has diabetes, one of an estimated 11.2 million seniors — 25.9 percent of Americans 65 or older, according to the American Diabetes Association — who have the condition that can result in serious infections, nerve, kidney and eye damage and life-threatening heart disease.

For Suvak, diabetes has meant daily testing, multiple injections and regular monitoring of her blood sugar.

It also has meant the expense of test strips, lancets, needles and life-sustaining insulin, all of which have dug deep into the fixed retirement income that she and her husband Ronald live on. The switch to Medicare came with a financial trapdoor — Medicare Part D’s prescription drug “doughnut hole” coverage gap — that she says doubled her diabetes-related costs that first year.

“It knocked the socks off of me. It just devastated me,” Suvak said.

Patients and providers alike have noted the rising cost of insulin, which the American Diabetes Association says nearly tripled in price from 2002 to 2013.

But that is only one of the hurdles that seniors with diabetes face. There’s also the emergence of high-deductible insurance plans, shifting more of the cost of care to patients, and formularies that may change the insulin brands that covered at a lower cost.

“This isn’t just about the increase in cost. It’s about Part D not covering every form of insulin in the same way or…