Search for cheaper medication takes U.S. caravan to Canadian birthplace of insulin
Skyrocketing U.S. insulin prices are driving a caravan of Americans with diabetes to the Canadian birthplace of the life-saving medication.
Organizer and diabetes advocate Quinn Nystrom said up to 45 people with Type 1 diabetes are expected to make the weekend trip to London, Ont., by bus or car from different U.S. cities.
“This is a crisis of epic proportions here in America. People are desperate and people are dying because they can’t afford insulin,” she told CTVNews.ca in a telephone interview, before her 25-person group from Minneapolis, Minn. left Friday.
U.S. insulin prices have soared over the past two decades. An American Diabetes Association spokesperson told CTVNews.ca the average price of insulin has nearly tripled between 2002 and 2013.
When Nystrom was diagnosed 20 years ago, she said insulin was around US$16 per vial. Now, it costs her US$340 -- roughly 10 times the price in Canada.
The Minnesotan caravan, which is being joined by people in Illinois and Michigan, is visiting Banting House in London, Ont., where Sir Frederick Banting came up with his idea that led to the discovery of insulin 99 years ago.
The group will hold a news conference on Saturday, joined by nearly two dozen U.S. media outlets also making the trip.
Banting famously sold his patent for $1 because he believed his discovery belonged to the world and not for profit.
Caravan member Deb Souther told CTVNews.ca over the phone that to people with diabetes, Banting is “almost like our patron saint.”
CANADIAN PRICES APPROXIMATELY 1/10 OF U.S. PRICES
This marks the core group’s second trip to Canada to buy significantly cheaper insulin, which people with diabetes use to regulate their blood glucose levels.
In early May, the group of only six Minnesotans -- including parents going on their children’s behalf -- drove 1,000 km to a Shoppers Drug Mart in Fort Frances, Ont.
Amie Criego from East Lansing, Mich. has gone on stretches in the past without health insurance. During those times, she recalls asking friends for insulin because she couldn’t afford it.
“I mean it’s bad and upsetting that (this) is necessary,” Criego told CTVNews.ca in a telephone interview. Although this is the first time she’s made the trip, she said it “probably'' won't be the last.
She admits that she “had no idea how much insulin costed” before she was diagnosed.
Canadian insulin prices can be approximately a tenth of those in the U.S. When Nystrom crossed the border the first time, she ended up paying US$300 for insulin, which would have cost US$3,300 stateside.
Fellow traveller Souther, who was diagnosed more than 45 years ago, uses three vials of insulin that each cost US$380 each month. In Canada, each vial is under US$40.
Souther said she’s now waiting for her husband’s insurance from his new job to kick in.
“This can’t keep going on,” she said. “There’s a lot of people who can’t make it to Canada and they’re actually losing their lives … and having to ration their insulin.”
UNLIKE U.S., CANADA’S SYSTEM REDUCES PRICE GOUGING
The reason for the discrepancy is because Canada regulates drug prices through the quasi-judicial Patented Medicine Prices Review Board designed to prevent gouging.
In the U.S., market forces are the lay of the land. But Nystrom said this needs to change for the sake of her and people affected by crippling drug prices.
While four states including Florida have passed legislation allowing for wholesale or individual imports of medications, advocates like Nystrom say it won’t be enough until there’s a plan for the entire country.
All the current U.S. medical tourists acknowledge that trips like this aren’t a long-term solution.
But in the short-term, Barry Power, a senior director with the Canadian Pharmacists Association, said he was concerned despite the group’s relatively small scale.
"Any time you have a large population such as the U.S ... coming to Canada to access medications that are earmarked for the Canadian market, there's potential for disruption of some sort,” he told The Canadian Press.
With files from The Canadian Press
Stopped in Madison, WI & marched off with our new posters. “Patients over Profits!” “Insulin keeps my son alive!” “Give me insulin, give me life!” Our voices will be heard in each and every state, even at a @KwikTrip. #Caravantocanada #insulin4all pic.twitter.com/TUGwhD9zVh— Quinn Nystrom (@QuinnNystrom) June 28, 2019