A group of Americans with type 1 diabetes has returned from Canada on a mission to buy affordable insulin. In May, the Canadian Broadcasting Company said Canadian pharmacists have reported a “quiet resurgence” in Americans crossing the border for affordable medication, specifically insulin, the life-sustaining diabetes drug whose ever-increasing price tag shows no signs of stopping in America.
The caravan was comprised of about 20 people, most of whom live in Minnesota.
The price difference for a single vial of insulin in America and insulin in Canada is approximately $300 despite there being no difference in formula. Many type 1 diabetes patients use more than one vial per month. Although the amount of insulin each person needs varies, the group estimated spending an average $3,000 per month on insulin from American pharmacies. By making this trek just a few miles north, they were able to save a collective $20,000.
One person in the caravan, Deb Souther, was astounded that insulin prices can vary so drastically just a few miles away. “It’s unbelievable that we can just go across the border and get insulin for this price,” she said. “[Three] months’ supply and save thousands and thousands of dollars.”
Some people in the caravan saw the situation from a different perspective. Another group member, Sarah Ginsberg, said: “This can’t be a long-term solution of, ‘let’s just go to Canada. Let’s just go to Mexico.’ That’s not feasible. We need change here in our own country; we should not be relying on another country to keep us alive.”
America’s insulin crisis
Despite the drug being nearly 100 years old, insulin prices have risen sharply and continually over the past two decades. During this time, insulin prices have climbed an astounding 1,123 percent. Between 2012 and 2015 alone, insulin prices in America doubled from $2,864 to $5,705.
One reason for these eye-popping prices is pharmacy benefit manager (PBM) kickbacks or rebates. PBMs act as middlemen between insurance companies and drug manufacturers. When PBMs decide which drugs will be covered by which plan and to what extent, they receive undisclosed amounts of money in return. This incentivizes both parties to keep prices (and profits) high and out of reach for some of the country’s most vulnerable people.
Another reason for insulin’s skyrocketing costs is due to Medicare being prohibited from negotiating drug prices, although several pieces of legislation have been proposed to address this barrier.
A possible solution
Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota recognizes how dire the insulin crisis is in America, and how many of her constituents are affected by the lack of affordable insulin. She has partnered with Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) to introduce legislation that would permit Americans to buy prescription drugs from Canadian pharmacies and bring them into the U.S. for personal use. The recurring caravan of people going to Canada served as the model and inspiration for this bill, but Klobuchar and Grassley intend to expand it to all prescription drugs.
Another caravan is set to depart from Detroit in late July, two days before the second round of Democratic presidential debates. This time, the group will be joined by candidate Senator Bernie Sanders (VT) who has built his campaign platform on making healthcare and medication more accessible for the average American.
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