Caravan to Canada showcases the high cost of insulin in the United States
Dec. 4, 2019
By Mary Wade Burnside
Toward the end of sixth grade, Adrian Kiger Olmstead developed an unquenchable thirst.
“I was always asking to be excused from class to get drinks of water,” she said.
That, of course, would lead to more bathroom trips.
“It got to the point where I was embarrassed, so I said something to my mom about it.”
Her mother had an aunt and an uncle who had had type 1 diabetes. She knew the disease was a possibility because excessive thirst is a well-known symptom. And she was right.
Olmstead set about learning how to control the disease. She had no choice. Diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is the No. 1 cause of kidney failure, lower-limb amputations and adult blindness. Before insulin was developed a century ago, the life expectation for someone diagnosed with diabetes was a few months.
Olmstead’s regimen quickly included daily injections of insulin, as well as years of pricking her finger to check her blood sugar levels. She no longer does the latter, thanks to a patch she wears that measures her blood sugar levels automatically with a subcutaneous needle.
"I practically cried with happiness and relief that I didn’t have to poke my finger anymore.”
She still endures insulin shots in her stomach; however, “It’s like brushing my teeth.”
Often diagnosed in children, type 1 diabetes means that the pancreas isn’t making any or very much insulin, a hormone that enables blood sugar to enter the cells in your body so it can be used for energy.
More than 30 million Americans, or about 1 in 10, have diabetes, although about 1 in 4 have not been diagnosed. However, between 90%-95% of them have type 2 diabetes. That means the pancreas can still make insulin, but cells don’t respond to it. This is called insulin resistance. People with type 2 diabetes can improve their condition with better eating habits, exercise and sometimes medications.
But, as Olmstead noted, for those with type 1 diabetes, “We can’t live without insulin.”
And paying for insulin has become increasingly difficult. Although the scientists who created insulin about 100 years ago sold the patent for a token $1, insulin costs have skyrocketed in recent years.
Olmstead usually pays $200-$300 a month for insulin and supplies, on top of $500 out-of-pocket for health insurance. While hefty, other people with type 1 diabetes have posted even higher costs.
Various sources note that the cost of insulin went up nearly 300% between 2002 and 2013. And it has continued to rise since then.
“We are literally fighting for our lives,” Olmstead said. “We have been priced out of taking care of ourselves. When I was diagnosed, I was told, ‘This is manageable.’ It’s manageable, but you have to be able to afford it to manage it. If you are a type I diabetic, if you don’t have insulin, you will die.”
These developments have turned Olmstead into a diabetes activist. Earlier this year, she learned about the group Insulin4All and saw that it didn’t have a West Virginia chapter, so she started one.
According to information on Insulin4All’s webpage, since the 1990s, the cost of insulin increased more than 1,200%.
Adrian Kiger Olmstead, right, appeared at a June press conference about insulin legislation with state Delegate Barbara Evans Fleischauer (left).
Olmstead has teamed up with Monongalia County Delegate Barbara Evans Fleischauer. When the two met, Fleischauer had already gotten legislation nationally known as Kevin’s Law passed. The law allows pharmacists to provide a 30-day refill on lifesaving prescriptions such as insulin. It was named for a man who couldn’t get a refill over the New Year’s holiday and died after rationing insulin.
Fleischauer announced the enactment of Kevin’s Law in West Virginia last June from Monongalia County Health Department. That’s where she also discussed plans with the media for a Dec. 8 bus trip to Canada, where insulin can be purchased much more cheaply. Olmstead will be on board.
In addition to getting lower-priced insulin, Olmstead said, the caravan will be a way to offer hope to people with diabetes.
“And the fact that we’re literally having to drive to another country to buy affordable insulin is absurd. But it’s reality.”
Fleischauer is also working on legislation that would cap the monthly price of insulin at $50 for those with insurance. “Colorado, for example, passed a bill and now there is a $100 cap on insulin per month per person,” Olmstead said.
There is still room on the bus for anyone who is interested and who already has a passport. To reserve a spot or get more details, email Olmstead at WVInsulin4All@gmail.com.
And if anyone with diabetes needs general help managing the illness or navigating insurance, the MCHD Clinical Services Diabetes Clinic can help. It takes place from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. every other Friday. Call 304-598-5119 to make an appointment.
Mary Wade Burnside is the public information officer for Monongalia County Health Department.