Living with diabetes is expensive. The more advanced our technology and medication options became, the more expensive they become, too. With some diabetes medications costing hundreds of dollars per month, the cost of test-strips alone can wipe-out your bank account.
Sadly, I’ve had several friends who have had to endure choosing between paying their rent or buying their insulin. A decision that will either leave you homeless or leave you at severe risk for DKA or even death.
Whether you have insurance or not obviously plays a big role in how your medications, but even for those with insurance, diabetes ain’t cheap! Here are a few tips to help you get the life-saving medication and tools you need to live well with diabetes:
One of the most exciting new test-strip resources for people with diabetes is, by far, a company called One Drop. One Drop was founded by Jeff Dachis. Jeff actually has type 1 diabetes. Knowing first-hand just how insane test-strips cost these days, and how insurance companies severely limit how many times you can test your blood sugar in one day, Jeff created an “unlimited test-strips” subscription program.
For a monthly fee—around $40 depending on which plan you choose— you can order as many test-strips as you need. And you don’t need a prescription or insurance approval or anything. One Drop allows you to bypass all that nonsense for roughly the same price you’d pay in a co-pay for a test-strips prescription of “4 strips per day for 30 days.” And you get free access to a certified diabetes educator, too, if you need help navigating blood sugar challenges!
While we’d like to think every pharmacy is going to sell a life-saving medication for the lowest price possible, it just ain’t so. Ask the pharmacists in your area what the prices are of the medications you take. Costco’s price vs. your grocery store pharmacy may differ by $10 or even $20. It’ll take some legwork and research, but it might save you a good chunk of money overall. You can also use this website, LowestMed, to research prices.
The cost of Tresiba from an online Canadian pharmacy called PricePro is almost $300 less than the price at a local pharmacy in the US. If you don’t have insurance and you don’t qualify for other patient assistance programs (detailed below) based on your income, ordering online can save you a lot of money. Another example: Freestyle Lite test-strips generally cost about $2 per strip (50 strips for $100) when you buy them out-of-pocket in the US, but you can get 100 strips for $77 if you buy them online in Canada.
However, buying online can be risky as well as illegal, says Jonathan Hughes, PharmD, BCPS, BCACP, ambulatory care clinical pharmacist specialist in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.
"There are some conditions in which it is legal to import prescription drugs, and the FDA also exercises discretion on when to take legal action, " says Dr. Hughes. "And, even if it is legal, rogue online pharmacies often display the Canadian flag prominently to scam patients. If it looks too good to be true, it might just be.”
Dr. Hughes strongly recommends finding an online pharmacy that has taken extra steps to prove they are a legitimate business. The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy has a list of pharmacies you can find here that have gone through their verification process.
For more information, you can also visit the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) website:
Keep it Simple
While we should all have access to diabetes technology, in today’s world using an insulin pump and a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) comes at a hefty price. Stick with insulin pens (which are generally cheaper than vials) and pen needles or syringes are significantly more affordable than using an insulin pump.
Testing your blood sugar many times a day (with unlimited strips from One Drop’s program), is dramatically more affordable than paying thousands of dollars (even with insurance) for a CGM. And those technologies seem to be only getting more expensive, with companies like DexCom now only putting 3 sensors in a box and limiting their lifespan to 10 days.
This won’t work for many, but it worked for me in my early 20s when I was uninsured. A good friend of mine with type 1 diabetes had incredible insurance through her father. She was getting hundreds more test-strips every month than what she needed. I bought them from her (and often she just gave them to me for free) whenever she felt comfortable with her supply.
People with diabetes like you and me are trading and selling their unwanted diabetes technology and supplies in Facebook groups—a way to help other people living with diabetes make supplies more affordable. There are dozens of groups on this popular social media platform. Start your search using the Facebook search tool with this phrase: "Buying & Selling Diabetic Supplies".
If you don’t mind the extra doctor’s appointments and experimenting, you could get some of your diabetes supplies paid for by applying and being accepted into a clinical trial. The JDRF has an ongoing list of clinical trials available. Sure, this requires plenty of tedious steps, but if you have the time to work through them, you might find it financially rewarding!
This non-profit diabetes supply charity helps low-income patients with diabetes get test-strips, insulin, pumps, and soon, continuous glucose monitors. You have to apply and qualify based on your income, of course, but it’s a genuine, awarded charity that is trying to help as many people with diabetes as it can!
Your local CVS pharmacy is trying to provide their own affordable generic insulin, but it’s a very outdated “regular” insulin versus the newer and more widely used rapid-acting or basal insulins. Keep your eye out for what CVS is up to because hopefully, they’ll continue to improve their offerings over the next few years.
No matter what type of diabetes you have, the healthier you eat and the more you exercise, the less insulin and other diabetes medications you will need. The less you spend on eating at restaurants and the more you learn how to cook whole foods at home, the more money you will save on your grocery budget and on your overall insulin usage. Drinking soda every day means more insulin being used every day. Eating pizza every day means more insulin being used every day. It’s not a cure but it can make a massive difference in the amount of insulin you need to buy every month.
Check online to see if your medication has a savings card—Medicare and Medicaid do not apply, however. If so, be sure to register or activate your card and provide it to the pharmacist BEFORE they run the medication through your insurance.
Register here for a Lantus savings and support card. According to OnTrack Diabetes editorial advisor Amy Hess-Fischl, MS, RD, LDN, BC-ADM, CDE programs like this one are also available for Novo Nordisk products as well as many of the oral medications. Ademlog has a savings program for the company's version of mealtime insulin (similar to Humalog and Novolog) if you buy10 mL vials or 10 packs of 5 pens per prescription.
The massive problem with these programs is that very few of us actually qualify for them. If you make more than around $36,000 a year but you don’t have insurance, they aren’t going to help you pay for the $600/month insulin prescriptions you need in order to survive, or the $300 test-strips prescription. These programs really highlight the severe issue with our health care system today and the out-of-pocket costs of lifesaving medications.
Most programs require that your household income is below 250% or 300% of the national poverty level. You can use this easy calculator from NeedyMeds to determine your income in relation to the national poverty level.
In an ideal world, insulin would be as cheap as Viagra. Unfortunately, the system is currently working against us and making living well with diabetes an extremely expensive burden. If you’re currently forced to choose between paying your rent or buying your insulin, know that there are groups and people out there that can help! You’re not alone.
*Ginger Vieira is a paid spokesperson for One Drop (as of Sept. 2018) but was not affiliated with the company until after this article was published.