Patients push back at UnitedHealthcare's exclusive insulin pump pact with Medtronic

diaTribe founder Kelly Close

Tandem Diabetes Care ($TNDM) is not the only one up in arms about UnitedHealthcare's ($UNH) recent deal to make Medtronic ($MDT) its sole in-network insulin pump provider. Some patients are also pushing back at the move, saying that the insurer's decision could limit therapeutic options for people with diabetes.

Exclusivity agreements between an insurer and healthcare company are nothing new; deals often take place for similar drugs. Few can forget pharma giant AbbVie's ($ABBV) exclusive pact with Express Scripts ($ESRX) for hep C treatment Viekira Pak, which set off a pricing war with rival Gilead Sciences ($GILD).

But "not all insulin pumps are the same, and it would be beneficial for many patients and providers to have a broader choice among all the available options, particularly for patients doing very well on one brand of pump," Kelly Close, founder of diabetes patient advocacy group diaTribe, wrote in an editorial in the group's eponymous online publication.

UnitedHealthcare's pact with Medtronic may also stifle innovation in the field, Close said. Smaller companies can suffer from exclusive agreements between payers and manufacturers, which could in turn limit their R&D. "We want to see a thriving commercial environment in diabetes, especially in areas that are under pressure to survive," Close said.

Close's foundation wrote an advocacy letter to send to payers that asks them to help overturn UnitedHealthcare's decision. "Overall, we'd love to see a more transparent process to better understand UnitedHealthcare's goals for people with diabetes and their providers," Close said.

Earlier this month, UnitedHealthcare made Medtronic its sole pump provider. As of July 1, the insurer will only cover Medtronic's pumps, which include the MiniMed 530G. Medtronic is quick to tout the device's safety and relative ease-of-use. MiniMed has a threshold suspend feature that temporarily shuts off insulin delivery if glucose levels fall beneath a certain preset.

UnitedHealthCare has said that its deal with Medtronic is "part of our ongoing efforts to provide a better member experience while increasing quality and lowering the overall cost of diabetes care in the United States," the insurer said in a recent bulletin.

But unsurprisingly, patients, advocacy groups and rival pump makers aren't buying this argument. Some diabetes patients have taken Twitter to protest UnitedHealthcare's move with the hashtags, "#DiabetesAccessMatters" and "#MyPumpMyChoice." "Medtronic needs to be in the market, but does NOT need to be THE market," Twitter user and Type 1 diabetes advocate Wes Ton tweeted earlier this week.

Medtronic's competitor Tandem is also pushing back at UnitedHealthcare's decision. "Having diabetes isn't a choice. How people manage it should be," Tandem President and CEO Kim Blickenstaff said in a statement earlier this month after the insurer announced its decision. "Insulin pumps are not a one-size fits all solution. Selecting which pump is the best fit for a person to manage their therapy needs should be a decision made between a person and their healthcare provider."

- read the diaTribe editorial
- here's the group's letter
- get UnitedHealthcare's bulletin (PDF)