Free Insulin: Strategies for Getting It When You Can't Afford Your Prescription

Insulin affordability is a serious problem as costs soar and medical associations, elected officials, advocates and people with diabetes clamor to bring down the price. If you’re having trouble paying for insulin, here are strategies you can try:

Young Man Looking UpsetIf you're having trouble affording insulin for your diabetes, these strategies may help you get access to the life-saving medication you need. (Photo: Unsplash, Seth Doyle)

#1. You’ve Run Out of Insulin and Can’t Refill Your Prescription

STATUS: This is an emergency. Insulin users who stop or use too little can quickly develop diabetic ketoacidosis, a potentially fatal condition, says certified diabetes educator Veronica J. Brady PhD, MSN, CDE, assistant professor of internal medicine at the University of Nevada, Reno, School of Medicine and an advanced practice registered nurse in endocrinology.

Ketones can rise to dangerous levels in your bloodstream in just 12 to 24 hours; you may have few symptoms and could lose consciousness.

What To Do: Go to an emergency room or urgent care clinic
If you’re already experiencing symptoms of DKA, such as thirst, frequent urination, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, fatigue, trouble breathing or fruity-smelling breath, call 9-1-1.

#2. You Still Have Insulin But Can’t Afford a Refill; You’re Rationing So It Lasts…Or, You're Newly Diagnosed But You Can’t Afford It

STATUS: This could become an emergency very quickly. If you are rationing or may run out soon or can’t start your insulin, you are at risk for DKA. High blood sugar also boosts your long-term odds for diabetes complications such as damage to your nerves, vision and kidneys. 

What To Do: You need more insulin right away—and help finding more affordable options in the near future.

  • First, call your healthcare provider today. Explain the problem and tell your doctor, nurse or certified diabetes educator how much insulin you have left. “Many practices will be able to give you insulin samples,” Brady says. This can tide you over, giving you time to investigate other ways to obtain insulin that will cost less.

  • Next, check these strategies for finding insulin that costs less:

Check your health insurance
If you have health insurance, make sure you’re using the insulin covered by your plan at the best price and that your prescription is being filled at a pharmacy that’s on your plan. “Review your insurance plan’s drug formulary to understand coverage of your prescriptions and cost variation by tier, by pharmacy, and pharmacy type…” the American Diabetes Association recommends. “Depending on your health care plan…biosimilar insulins may be less expensive than the original formulation.” 

You can check this on your health insurance plan’s website or by calling the insurance company’s customer service line. If insulin with the best coverage is different from the insulin you use, call your doctor’s office right away and ask about changing your prescription.

Got a doctor’s appointment coming up? Talk money
The ADA now advises healthcare practitioners to discuss the affordability of diabetes medications (and other care) with their patients to make sure their care plan meets their needs. Don’t be shy. Ask what a new drug will cost you, based on your current insurance (or the retail price if you don’t have insurance). If it’s too steep, speak up and ask about alternatives. 

Buying insulin on your own? Sleuth for the best retail price Some trustworthy websites offer discount programs for some types of insulin or information about current prices and available discounts.

Good places to look:

It’s worth checking with big discount stores like WalMart, Costco and Sam’s Club as well as local grocery-store pharmacies and independent pharmacies. Pharmacies may also have discount programs, so be sure to ask.

Use a drug savings card
Available from drug companies for many types of insulin, a savings card could lower your copay to zero or bring the retail price down significantly. The caveats: People with government-backed prescription-drug coverage such as Medicare, Medicaid, Veterans Administration, Department of Defense, TRICARE or state pharmaceutical plans usually can’t use these savings cards. But it’s worth checking with the drug company and your pharmacy to be sure.

Consider human insulin
Older, human insulins that you use with a needle and syringe cost far less than newer insulin analogues, often in insulin pens. A vial of Novolin ReliOn Insulin N cost $24.88 at WalMart when this story was written (late 2018). “If you’ve never used human insulin, work with your healthcare provider,” Brady recommends. You’ll have to learn to give yourself shots and learn how to time this insulin, which acts differently in the body than newer types. 

Apply for assistance
You may qualify for the federal government’s Extra Help program, for your state health insurance assistance program, for one of the new insulin assistance programs offered by drug companies or for other help from groups like NeedyMeds, The Partnership for Prescription Assistance.

In addition, Rx Assist; Rx Hope; and for seniors, BenefitsCheckUp  can help you find assistance programs. Insulin makers are also doing more to help people get the insulin they need.

Learn more at:

Updated on: July 25, 2019
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How to Avoid Diabetic Ketoacidosis