Insulin pumps are worn by diabetics to monitor blood glucose levels and replace manual injections. (Wikimedia Commons)

Americans head to Canada to buy cheap insulin; some worry about supply here

Four states including Florida have passed legislation allowing for wholesale or individual imports of medications

The soaring cost of insulin in the United States prompted a group of American diabetics to head to Canada on Friday to buy the non-prescription drug at a fraction of the price.

The group of about 25 left Minneapolis, Minn., for London, Ont., where they also plan to hold a press conference to draw attention to the affordability plight.

One of the organizers, Quinn Nystrom, who is making her second such expedition, said insulin prices south of the border have skyrocketed in two decades.

“One in four Americans are rationing their insulin because they cannot afford it, so people are dying,” Nystrom, 33, said in an interview as she prepared to leave. “It’s a tragedy.”

When she was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes 20 years ago, Nystrom said, the price of insulin was around US$16 for a vial. Now it costs US$340 — roughly 10 times the price in Canada.

READ MORE: Insulin pumps to be covered for adult diabetics in B.C.

Nystrom, with the group Minnesota #insulin4all, said Americans can take home a maximum three-month personal supply, but some can only afford a vial or two. One vial of insulin, which helps regulate blood-sugar levels, generally lasts from a few days to a couple of weeks, depending on the patient.

While insulin tourism to Canada is still relatively small scale, it is sparking some concern.

“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,” said Barry Power, a senior director with the Canadian Pharmacists Association. ”We see it as a risk that we want to bring to the attention of the federal government.”

Four states including Florida have passed legislation allowing for wholesale or individual imports of medications.

“That’s worrying to us, because if people see it as sanctioned by the U.S. government, then there could be a lot of pressure on Canadian pharmacists and the supply chain,” said Power, a pharmacist in Ottawa.

Health Canada and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration need to put their heads together to start addressing the situation, Power said. Ideally, Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor would talk to her American counterpart to ensure the drug supply in Canada is safeguarded, and manufacturers could do more to limit exports, he said.

Petitpas Taylor’s spokeswoman Thierry Belair said on Friday the government was monitoring the situation.

Because insulin is non-prescription in Canada, there is no tracking mechanism of how much might be heading south.

“I do not want to be a bad neighbour,” Nystrom said. “I would never come to Canada if there was a drug shortage (and) I do not think going to Canada is a long-term solution. It’s like putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound.”

The Minnesota group is planning to visit Banting House in London, where Sir Frederick Banting came up with his idea that led to the discovery of insulin 99 years ago. They plan a news conference on Saturday to raise awareness.

Ironically, Nystrom said, Banting sold his patent for $1 because he believed his discovery belonged to the world and should not be for profit.

“That’s crucial for us to show all Americans: Look at what it’s become in the U.S. It become greed and corruption,” Nystrom said. “It’s gotten out of control with the price, and they increase it every year and we’re held hostage.”

Canada, in line with other industrialized countries, regulates drug prices through the quasi-judicial patented medicine prices review board whose mandate is to prevent gouging. Market forces — essentially whatever people will pay — operate in the U.S.

Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press

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