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UnitedHealthCare and Medtronic Diabetes: I Could be Mad

I could be mad at UnitedHealthCare.

I could be mad at Medtronic Diabetes.

I could be mad at a healthcare system that allows health insurance companies to practice medicine and mandate care decisions for their subscribers.

But mostly I am sad.

I am sad for everyone with diabetes. I am especially sad for those of us with Type 1 diabetes for whom improvements in technology have been life-changing. I am sad for everyone who has diabetes today and for those who will be diagnosed in the future.

In some ways the last five to ten years have been a golden age of diabetes care with the release of new insulins, new medications, innovative insulin pumps, and increasingly reliable CGM systems. We see parents able to monitor their child’s blood sugar while at school. We see artificial pancreas clinical trials where blood sugar levels are optimized and the mental burden of care is reduced. Encapsulated beta cell trials have allowed some patients with T1 diabetes to reduce or eliminate the need for insulin injections. The next five years could be even more impressive for the Type 1 market with the probable release of several artificial pancreas systems, the advent of smart insulin, and explosions in ways to monitor our data.

How can I be mad at UnitedHealthCare and Medtronic? They are doing what big companies do. They are trying to grow bigger, squash competition, and make money. They can talk about visions of patient-centric care, but ultimately their DNA drives them to base most of their decisions on the bottom line.

As patients in the United States, what are we supposed to wish for and whom should we blame? It is easy to lobby for national health insurance to eliminate huge profits earned by companies such as UnitedHealthcare. At the same time as a person with longterm Type 1 diabetes, there are few countries in the world where I would have access to an insulin pump and even fewer where a CGM would be funded. I can idealistically hate the idea of our dysfunctional for-profit healthcare system, but there is no doubt that I have benefited from it.

I currently use an Animas Vibe insulin pump and a Dexcom G5 CGM. Fortunately I do not have insurance through United Healthcare. As someone who will be on Medicare in less than a year, I have slowly been coming to terms with the idea that much of the future of diabetes tech will be denied to me. I wrote a blogpost in early April titled “Countdown to Medicare with Type 1 Diabetes: 12 Months” and shared my feelings:

“There is a sadness in realizing that I will probably not get access to any or all of the new technologies and medications coming to market in future years. Things like the artificial pancreas, encapsulated insulin-producing cells, and smart insulin will likely not receive Medicare coverage for many years, if ever.”

But what if the future doesn’t come? The scariest part of the UnitedHealthCare mandate for Medtronic products is the threat that no one with diabetes will receive these life-changing therapies because they will not come to be. Although I sometimes think that Medtronic is taken for granted as a workhorse and powerful player in the diabetes market, in my opinion the most cutting-edge tech devices in recent years have come from the smaller players: Dexcom, Tandem, Asante, and even back to the beloved-Cozmo insulin pump. Innovative medical breakthroughs are apt to be eliminated when choice and competition are trampled by the bigger and more financially-secure players.

As I tweeted during the DSMA TwitterChat on Wednesday night:

I am not mad.

I am sad.

*****

For more information about the UnitedHealthCare agreement with Medtronic Diabetes, I suggest you start with Mike Hoskins’ article at Diabetes Mine. He provides links to other passionate blogposts and social media responses and outlines actions that we can take to have our voices heard.

Hashtags:  #DiabetesAccessMatters #MyPumpChoice #PatientsOverProfits #AccessMatters