American ‘caravan’ crossed Canadian border to buy affordable diabetes drugs

"We have all these people dying from a very solvable issue."

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Getty Images

For Quinn Nystrom, and millions of other Americans living with Type 1 Diabetes, insulin affordability is a “real crisis issue.”

So Nystrom took it upon herself to find a temporary solution. Last week, she and seven others organized a four-car “caravan” from Minneapolis, Minnesota, to drive 600 miles across the border to Fort Francis, Ontario, in Canada to purchase the life-saving insulin they all needed.

“It was a black and white difference,” Nystrom told ThinkProgress of her experience purchasing insulin at a Canadian pharmacy. In the United States, she said, as a self-employed 33-year-old who makes “a decent living” and has health insurance through the Affordable Care Act, she pays approximately $600 for two vials of insulin — a cost that remains high until she meets her $2,800 deductible.

In Canada, Nystrom said, she paid one-tenth of that cost, spending only $300 for 10 vials of insulin.

“We literally walked in and walked right back to the pharmacy … you didn’t even need to have a prescription,” she said. “It was that easy.”

Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warns consumers against buying insulin in other countries, stating that it cannot guarantee the safety of such drugs, Nystrom and the rest of the caravan didn’t seem concerned, telling local news outlet KARE 11 that the medicine is made by the same company.


“We’re getting ripped off royally,” Nystrom told ThinkProgress. “We’re cash cows to [pharmaceutical companies]. They’re making so much money off of us.”

Indeed, the United States has some of the highest drug prices in the world, especially when compared to countries where the government regulates or negotiates drug costs. Instead, the United States allows market competition to determine drug prices.

According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), the average list price of insulin has increased dramatically between 2002 and 2013, nearly tripling in cost. A recent ADA survey found that 37% of insulin users, and more than half of dependent child insulin users, reported that their cost of insulin increased from December 2017 to January 2018. In some cases, insulin users had to adjust to price increases by missing doses or cutting back on basic necessities, like groceries or transportation.

Earlier this year, dozens of pharmaceutical companies raised prices on hundreds of medicines, despite President Donald Trump’s repeated promises to hold the Big Pharma industry accountable. Last year, the administration released a blueprint for drug pricing reform, followed by a report highlighting 15 pharmaceutical companies who have either reversed price increases or pledged to freeze prices in 2018. Of those 15, however, at least four increased prices in 2019. Eli Lilly, for example, increased the price of a Type 2 diabetes medication by 6%.

For Nystrom, the solution is two-fold. First, she believes Congress must pass a transparency bill to force pharmaceutical companies to be open about their pricing practices. Several states have taken it upon themselves to pass such legislation. Oregon, for instance, signed a bill into law last year requiring drug makers to report the reasons for price increases, among other requirements.


Second, Nystrom said Congress should follow Minnesota’s lead in advancing a federal emergency insulin act that allows someone without insurance to receive an emergency supply of insulin that is needed to survive. Such legislation, Nystrom said, will help save lives.

“We have all these people dying from a very solvable issue,” she said.

After returning from her five-hour road trip to Canada, Nystrom said that although she was happy to have purchased affordable insulin, she felt more concerned than ever about the state of drug prices in the United States.

“It left me, when I got home, sort of depressed. I was sort of heartbroken about where America has gone wrong,” she said. “Our politicians have let our citizens down.”