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The US Caravan to Canada for affordable insulin

People with type 1 diabetes from Minnesota (US) organised a caravan to Canada to purchase insulin for a much lower price than they would pay in US pharmacies.


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#CaravantoCanada members pictured with insulin supplies
(From left to right) #CaravantoCanada members Travis Paulson, Quinn Nystrom, Vicky Lueftke, Leah Wornath, Nicole Holt-Smith and Lija Greenseid.

People with type 1 diabetes from Minnesota (US) organised a caravan to Canada to purchase insulin for $30 a vial rather than the $350 they would pay in US pharmacies.  All members of the #CaravantoCanada are advocates for the #Insulin4All initiative.  Nicole Smith-Holt, whose son Alec Smith had type 1 diabetes and died from rationing the costly medication, accompanied the caravan in his memory.  Travis Paulson, who lives with type 1 diabetes, writes about his experience on the caravan and why the trip to Canada from his home state of Minnesota is so key for his life. 

It is not uncommon in the US for insulin to cost so much that many people with diabetes are left with little money for food, housing, and necessities. I need insulin like people need air to breathe. Without insulin, I would suffer then die within days. Getting insulin is a matter of life or death for me and all the others on the US caravan to Canada.

Minnesota’s #Insulin4All group is a group of advocates who came together for a common purpose. We run non-profits, and most of us are self-employed. We advocate for diabetes and affordable insulin. Most of us on the caravan know each other from meeting at the Minnesota Capitol building, online forums, and public relations events.  Although the #CaravantoCanada was for survival, I think we all believed we were protesting for our lives and others with diabetes.

I live only 90 miles from the Canadian border which makes regular trips for insulin fairly easy. I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when I was 14-years-old. I was a fit and athletic kid with healthy eating habits.  An auto-immune disorder like type 1 diabetes doesn’t carefully pick and choose.

My reasons for going to Canada for insulin are very simple: to purchase affordable insulin in order to survive.

My reasons for going to Canada for insulin are very simple for me: to purchase affordable insulin in order to survive.  I use approximately five vials of Novolog/Novorapid a month, or 15 vials every three months. In the US, that costs $5,250. In Canada, the same 15 insulin vials cost $409.  Even if I used insurance, the price in the U.S. would still be $150 per vial, plus a $600 deductible. The insulin in Canada is the same exact insulin available at US pharmacies.

Not only was the caravan to Canada an insulin run, but it also served as an opportunity to teach fellow advocates, educate the public, and use media resources to publicize the disparity present in the U.S. healthcare system. We contacted the Canadian pharmacy and let them know what we were doing. We ordered our insulin in advance. This assured they had enough on hand to fill our requests, and a way not to affect insulin needs for regular customers.

How and why should US citizens continue to pay 10 times the price other countries pay for life-sustaining insulin? The reality is most of us on the trip including myself have rationed or are rationing insulin to manage the cost of staying alive.

The scientists who discovered insulin sold the patent for one dollar for the betterment of mankind–so no one living with diabetes would have to suffer. Since that time, the three big insulin manufacturers (Lilly, Novo Nordisk and Sanofi) have gained control of the patents and they are using a kind of cruel extortion on people with diabetes. It has literally become your money or your life. No weapons needed.

Buying insulin in Canada is something I have been very open about. I have spoken openly with my US State Senators, and Minnesota law enforcement. Everyone agrees that this is something that must be done and any attempt to stop it would be a career ending decision for that person. The Federal government looks the other way on personal supplies of insulin from other countries. In Canada, insulin doesn’t require a prescription. In the US, Big Pharma lobbyists got a law passed in the 1990’s requiring a prescription for insulin. Soon afterwards insulin prices began rising and haven’t stopped. Ideally, we want this reversed as it has a lot to do with price.

Another issue is that every state has its own laws. Often those state laws conflict with federal laws. In Minnesota the importation of injectables is technically not allowed. However, an individual is allowed to bring back a 3-month supply of personal medication when crossing borders. When that medication is insulin it becomes a grey area and therefore, we weren’t sure if we were going to be detained, have our insulin confiscated, or maybe worse. Traveling with a caravan, a few reporters and news crews, certainly drew a lot of suspicion usually not present. We all felt a great deal of relief after declaring our objectives along with the insulin totals to U.S. border patrol. We were welcomed back into the US.

The US Congress needs to fix our broken system.  I look forward to the day when I can feel secure in my own country and have access to affordable insulin.  At that time, we’ll have no more need for a caravan to Canada.

 

Travis Paulson is the Managing Director of Northern Minnesota Advocacy Group (#NMNAdvocacy), and lives in Eveleth, Minnesota.


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