Dozens of Americans travelled to a southern Ontario Walmart on Saturday to purchase diabetes drugs for roughly one-tenth of what they cost in the United States.
The advocacy group Insulin For All, which organized the trip, says that prices for life-saving diabetes drugs have skyrocketed to the point that a quarter of Americans with diabetes are forced to ration their medication.
Diabetic advocate Quinn Nystrom, who travelled with the caravan from Minnesota, paid US$243 for her drugs on Saturday in Ontario. The same supply would have cost her US$3,060 at home, she said.
Nicole Smith-Holt was also on the bus. She said that her son, Alex Smith, died at the age of 26 after he lost his drug insurance and was forced to ration his insulin.
“He would still be alive today if I had known at that time, two years ago, that I had the option to cross the border,” Smith-Holt told CTV London.
“I didn't know at that time that I would not be stopped at the border for purchasing insulin in Canada,” she added. “I seriously thought I would go prison for doing this."
Smith did not qualify for Medicaid, the drug insurance plan that covers low-income Americans.
After leaving the Walmart, the group made a pilgrimage to Banting House, the home in London where Sir Frederick Banting lived in 1920 when he came up with the theory that led to the discovery of insulin.
“He discovered insulin in 1924, and he sold this insulin patent for one dollar because he believed it was for the people,” said Jillian Rippolone, who was part of the caravan.
“Now they’re selling it for $340 dollars retail,” she added. “No one can afford it."
John Kennedy, who travelled from Ohio to join the caravan, said that he believes that prices are too high because pharmaceutical companies take “unconscionable profits.”
In Canada, drug prices are regulated by the federal Patented Medicine Prices Review Board, which has a mandate is to ensure the cost of medications is “not excessive.”
"We have got to do better in our country,” Kennedy said. “People are where we need to be on it, regular folks. It’s our political leaders lack the courage to do the right thing.”
Although older generic insulin products can be purchased for less than US$25 per vial in the U.S., newer products called insulin analogs can cost more than $300 per vial. Experts from the American Diabetes Association say analogs have obvious clinical benefits: they are absorbed more quickly, last longer and require fewer injections. Most patients prefer analogs because they are easier to administer and there are fewer concerns about dose adjustments, the ADA says. However, some doctors say there is little difference between the two forms of insulin, and that both medications do the same thing.
In terms of pricing, reports have singled out pharmaceutical companies – particularly those in the U.S. – for wildly different price points for the same insulin products. For instance, a vial of glargine – an analog insulin – was on shelves in Malaysia for $14. The very same product was sold in the U.S. on the same day for $180 to $200.