Pittsburgh diabetics traveling to Canada to buy insulin

A poll this month found nearly eighty percent of Americans find drug prices unreasonable. In February, 11 Investigates looked into the rising price of insulin and the potentially deadly results of that increase.

Now, we followed some of those Pittsburgh diabetics over the border to see how driving across one bridge can change everything.

The journey is not a short one. It takes 250 miles, up Interstate 79 and along Lake Erie to reach the Rainbow Bridge. The drive across that bridge into Canada means saving hundreds of dollars on something they all need to survive.

"You're in Canada and all of a sudden insulin is a lot cheaper," said Type 1 Diabetic Lauren Granata.

Our border crossing agent told us he's seen several US citizens on the same journey into Canada to save hundreds of dollars on their insulin. We spoke to one of the Pittsburghers right after he paid for three vials of his insulin for about $90 U.S. without a prescription. He usually would pay $285 for just one vial in the US.


"It doesn't make sense that we have to do it the way we do back home," said Brent Garner.

At a second pharmacy, it was the same story. This time, Granata was able to find her insulin for about a quarter of the US cost.

"There's people that legitimately die because they can't afford this and I can drive across the border and buy this for $100," she told 11 Investigates. "And it keeps me alive."

Just this week, insulin maker Eli Lilly shed light on its confidential drug pricing for Humalog. It said the net price patients pay after rebates and discounts actually dropped eight percent from 2014. Meanwhile, the average list price rose 52 percent in that time to about $600 per patient each month. People without insurance could be forced to pay outright and quickly find themselves with mounting bills.

Eli Lilly also announced a cheaper generic this month, but the group we talked to wasn't impressed, calling the announcement a Band-Aid.

"They need to do what's right and they need to make it one price everywhere in the world," Granata said.

The FDA warns against importing drugs because it “cannot ensure the safety and effectiveness” of the drugs. Our group said they were able to buy the exact same insulin they would purchase in the United States.

The Senate Finance Committee has launched an investigation into rising insulin prices. President Donald Trump has made lowering drug prices a key goal of his administration. Until that happens, these friends are prepared to make this drive again.

"Legally you can bring a 3 month supply across the border, so if I have to do this once every three months, I have to do it once every three months," Granata said.

We looked into why the price difference exists. It comes down to negotiating power. In the US, Medicare can't negotiate drug prices. Canada has a drug review board that compares drug effectiveness relative to other products on the market. That board can turn down expensive drugs if they outprice a good alternative. That can drive companies to lower prices to remain competitive.

A study published in BMJ Global Health last year estimated the cost of production of a vial of insulin at less than $4. Insulin makers say that doesn't factor in the cost of research, quality testing, distribution and company growth.