Opinion

A policy change that will improve the lives of millions with diabetes

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Nearly 30 million Americans have diabetes, including more than 137,000 Mainers. Diabetes is the leading cause of kidney failure, blindness in adults, and amputations not related to injury, and it is the seventh leading cause of death in the U.S., claiming some 70,000 lives each year.

Ever since I founded the Senate Diabetes Caucus, I have advocated for investments that led to breakthroughs in diabetes research and for policies to alleviate the difficulties and heartbreak diabetes causes for so many American families as they await a cure. Medicare has now adopted a policy I have long championed that allows Part D plans to offer coverage for effective, life-saving devices that deliver insulin, such as the Omnipod system, that are helping millions of Americans with diabetes manage the disease.

Insulin-dependent Medicare beneficiaries rely on therapies such as patch pumps, which provide continuous insulin delivery without the need for tubes, to manage their disease. While such treatments are covered by almost all private insurers, Medicare did not cover these devices. As a result, individuals with diabetes lost coverage for the physician-prescribed therapies they had successfully used when they aged into Medicare. It defied common sense that Americans with diabetes would lose coverage for these proven devices when they qualified for Medicare

I joined with the co-chairman of the Diabetes Caucus, U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-New Hampshire to urge the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to expand Medicare coverage policies to include patch pumps. The recent announcement that Medicare Part D can now cover this technology will improve the lives of the millions of Americans who are living with diabetes and rely on continuous insulin delivery devices. I am thrilled that CMS responded to our advocacy by removing this unnecessary barrier to this lifesaving and cost-effective therapy.

The importance of advancements in diabetes therapy was powerfully demonstrated at a Senate Aging Committee hearing I chaired last summer that focused on progress that has been made toward developing a cure for Type 1 diabetes. Among the witnesses I invited to testify at the hearing was Charlie Albair, a 10-year-old boy from Gray.

Charlie was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when he was 6. For the first year, he treated his disease with insulin injections from syringes – as many as 10 shots each day. At first, he thought having diabetes would change his whole life and end his dream of becoming a sports star.

Then he got an insulin pump. “Now,” he told the committee, “I don’t have to constantly be stabbing myself with a needle … Now, I realize I can do whatever I want.”

Charlie also uses a continuous glucose monitor, or CGM, to accurately track his blood-glucose levels. The physician-prescribed CGM is a life-saver for people with diabetes because it prevents dangerously low and dangerously high blood glucose levels by alarming the wearer when glucose levels fall outside of a safe range. Prior to February 2017, Medicare did not cover CGMs. As a result of a sustained advocacy effort I helped lead, however, CGMs are now covered, like the Omnipod.

In addition to the human toll, diabetes costs the U.S. an estimated $245 billion a year – a cost that is projected to more than double by the year 2020, just three years from now. Diabetes also accounts for one out of three Medicare dollars. In fact, medical costs for Americans with diabetes are more than double those incurred by individuals without diabetes.

One of the most effective ways to control these costs is to better enable people with diabetes to control the disease with such devices as Omnipods and CGMs. Since I founded the Senate Diabetes Caucus 21 years ago, funding for diabetes research has more than tripled. This funding is helping to drive the research that is producing the advancements that are changing lives.

Through my work on the Aging Committee, I am keenly aware of the toll diabetes takes on older Americans. Having chaired nine consecutive Children’s Congresses on juvenile diabetes, I have also seen how this disease affects young people and their families. Across the generations, the importance of research to prevent, treat, and eventually cure diabetes is clear.

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