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Americans With Diabetes Take a 'Caravan to Canada' for Cheaper Insulin

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In the United States, people with type 1 diabetes spend an average of $5,705 per year on insulin alone. In Canada, people with type 1 diabetes pay an average of $1,500 CDN (about $1,140 USD) per year for all their diabetes supplies, including medication. So last weekend, a group of Americans went on a “Caravan to Canada” to not only buy insulin for a fraction of what they would pay at home, but also to raise awareness of the price gouging Americans face for the exact same medication.

The group was organized by the Minnesota state chapter of Insulin4All, an advocacy group under the diabetes nonprofit organization T1International. The “caravan” traveled by private bus, starting off in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on Friday and arriving in London, Ontario, the next day after picking up other caravaners along the way.

Once in Canada, the group of Americans with type 1 diabetes purchased insulin and made a stop at the Banting House, the former home of Sir Frederick Banting, the co-discoverer of insulin who chose to sell the patent rights for insulin to the University of Toronto for $1 because, as he said, “Insulin does not belong to me, it belongs to the world.”

Quinn Nystrom, the Minnesota Insulin4All chapter leader, helped organize the trip and documented the journey on Twitter, starting in Minneapolis with a few members of the group.

Along the way, the group made signs to show off when they stopped to pick up more passengers in Indiana, Ohio and Michigan.

The group, now including 15 people with type 1 diabetes plus dozens of supporters, made it through border patrol at the U.S.-Canada border. While buying medication in a foreign country and bringing it back to the U.S. isn’t exactly encouraged by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the FDA doesn’t prohibit Americans from purchasing insulin in Canada and bringing it back home as long as they only bring back a three-month supply for personal use. (The agency only focuses on going after people making money from this activity).

After spending the night in a hotel, the caravan headed out to pharmacies in London to purchase insulin. In Canada, you don’t need a prescription to buy insulin. Nystrom revealed she was able to buy nine vials of insulin for $239.87, which would have cost her $3,060 in the U.S.

The group headed home on Sunday and encountered no issues bringing their insulin across the border.

Nystrom told The Mighty this is the second caravan to Canada she has participated in. Earlier this spring, another member of Minnesota’s Insulin4All group organized a similar trip, from St. Paul, Minnesota, to Fort Frances, Ontario. The group only included six people but garnered some media attention, which Nystrom said surprised her — after all, they weren’t the first Americans to go to Canada to buy cheaper medication. Inspired by the positive response to that trip, she decided to help organize last weekend’s trip.

Nystrom has had type 1 diabetes for 20 years, and has a high-deductible health insurance plan she purchased on MNSure, Minnesota’s health insurance marketplace created by the Affordable Care Act. She purchased two vials of Novolog insulin the day before the caravan began and paid $233. Meanwhile, in London, a vial cost $26.

Crossing the border into Canada and back into the U.S. was relatively easy, Nystrom said. Going back into the U.S., Nystrom said the border agent asked if they were actually saving any money since they had traveled such a long way.

“I said yeah, I bought a three month supply and saved $3,000. I think even he was shocked,” Nystrom said.

But, as Nystrom noted, this was a “trip of privilege.” Many of the people who perhaps need Canada’s low prices the most would be unable to to take a trip like this, due to the cost of travel, needing to take time off work and not having a passport. Despite getting a sponsor to help pay for the bus and raising money to offset the cost of the hotel, the bus was only a quarter full because many people who wanted to participate just couldn’t do it.

So while another “Caravan to Canada” may happen in the future, Nystrom said she is more focused on advocating for health care legislation similar to Canada’s, and holding elected officials accountable for policies that allow insulin manufacturers to “price gouge” Americans.

“Their government looked out for them. Our government unfortunately has let for-profit companies run amok,” Nystrom said. “I can get as upset as I want at pharma companies, but unfortunately they are for-profit companies and they played in the sandbox with rules that were set for them.”

“What I hope people will take from this is for every single citizen concerned about this issue to stand up and use their voice to contact their elected official and say this is an issue we’re really concerned about and we need you to take action,” Nystrom added. “Because unless that happens, nothing is going to change in our political system.”

As the price of insulin has skyrocketed in recent years and stories of people dying after rationing their insulin have been publicized, diabetes advocates have pressured insulin manufacturers to lower their prices, and pressured politicians to better regulate drug costs. In May, Colorado became the first U.S. state to limit the amount residents will have to pay for insulin at $100 a month.

For more insight into the diabetes experience, check out these stories:

Originally published: July 2, 2019
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