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Medication Tourism

Have you heard the term ‘medical tourism?’ Well, now there is something more specific: medication tourism.1 As a Canadian, I’m very concerned. As a diabetic, I’m even more concerned.

Insulin availability in Canada

The sky-high pricing of insulin in the United States has forced people, families, to head to Canada to obtain their insulin.2 It is a major problem for the United States and it could be catastrophic for Canada. The insulin produced in Canada is produced based on the supply/needs of Canadians and those living in Canada. That supply barely meets the current need.3 There appears to be thought that Canadians do not have any issues with affording all that they need for their health care, specifically their diabetes. This couldn’t be further from the truth.4,5 Very similar to the US, not every Canadian who requires insulin can afford it. Many Canadian families do not have the money to put food on the table, to pay their rent, let alone to cover the cost of medications. Not every province in Canada will cover the cost of insulin in part or in full. Many jobs in Canada do not have benefits that will pay for insulin. We have adults, youth and children who are not able to obtain their insulin when they need it. Very much like in the US, it’s not just the cost of insulin, it’s about the high cost of living in Canada, it’s the cost of supplies to use the insulin but also the self-management tools, glucometers, test strips, etc. Canadians are rationing their insulin based on what they can afford. Add to this, if our supply is being purchased in large quantities by folks from outside Canada, it will further the issues Canada already has. As I sit on the precipice of needing insulin myself, I am fearful I won’t have access to it, not because of cost, but because the supply has been depleted. It has already occurred in other provinces and territories.

High cost of insulin in the US

The difficult part is that, as a human being, I do not want anyone needing insulin to be without it. It is necessary. It is essential. It is life-saving. It is inexpensive to make, roughly $6-$16 for a vial. What I struggle with: Canada is being drawn into the political arena by politicians who want to make their point that things are not good in the US.6 Leaders who enact legislation that involves Canada without the discussion with Canada, without appearing to recognize the impact on us, is unconscionable.6

I am without words when I see what is being charged for one vial of insulin in the USA. In Canada, we have dealt with the pricing of medications by enacting the Patented Medicine Prices Review Board.7,8 Although this is not a perfect system, it has kept the cost of life-saving drugs like insulin at a cost that may be more affordable.

Insulin tourism

Would I go to the US to secure medication that would not bankrupt my family?9 Yes. I probably would.

Would I go to the US to get a treatment that could save my life and was available immediately when there was a long waitlist here? Again, yes, I probably would.

I understand why families are coming to Canada to buy their insulin. I do. What deeply affected me was the statement from a mother who organized a group to come to Canada to buy insulin. She stated, according to the news report, she would be a good neighbor and not come to Canada to buy insulin if there was a shortage here.10 She failed to understand that by coming here, she is potentially creating that shortage. It’s a no-win scenario.

The current situation in the US has created a dilemma, morally and ethically, for all of us on both sides of the border. We cannot sacrifice the needs of one country for the needs of another but that mom was correct, we have to be good neighbors. We have to work together so people don’t die.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The Type2Diabetes.com team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

  • Baker D. E. (2014). Has the time come for "medication tourism"?. Hospital pharmacy, 49(11), 999–1000. doi:10.1310/hpj4911-999
  • Jeremiah Rodriguez. (2019). Search for cheaper medication takes U.S. caravan to Canadian birthplace of insulin. CTV News. Accessed on September 9, 2019, from: https://www.ctvnews.ca/health/search-for-cheaper-medication-takes-u-s-caravan-to-canadian-birthplace-of-insulin-1.4487151
  • Canadian Patient Safety Institute. (2019). Meeting with Federal Minister of Health to discuss impact of US bulk drug imports on patient safety. Accessed on September 9, 2019, from: https://www.patientsafetyinstitute.ca/en/NewsAlerts/News/Pages/Meeting-with-Federal-Minister-of-Health-to-discuss-impact-of-US-bulk-drug-imports-on-patient-safety-2019-08-21.aspx
  • Diabetes Canada. (2019). Accessed on September 9, 2019, from: https://www.diabetes.ca/DiabetesCanadaWebsite/media/Advocacy-and-Policy/Letter-to-Minister-Petitpas-Taylor-on-bulk-importation-of-insulin-by-US.pdf
  • Jan Hux. (2019). Americans with diabetes face an insulin crisis – but Canada is no paradise, either. The Globe and Mail. Accessed on September 9, 2019, from: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-americans-with-diabetes-face-an-insulin-crisis-but-canada-is-no/
  • Amanda Coletta. (2019) Trump and Sanders want to ease imports of drugs from Canada. Canada says not so fast. The Washington Post. Accessed on September 9, 2019, from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/trump-and-sanders-want-to-ease-imports-of-drugs-from-canada-canada-says-not-so-fast/2019/08/01/1f0f91a6-b463-11e9-acc8-1d847bacca73_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.36a7a1d482d5
  • Patented Medicine Prices Review Board. (2018) Accessed on September 9, 2019, from: http://www.pmprb-cepmb.gc.ca/view.asp?ccid=490
  • News Staff. (2017) 63,000 Canadians left the country for medical treatment last year: Fraser Institute. CTV News. Accessed on September 9, 2019, from: https://www.ctvnews.ca/health/63-000-canadians-left-the-country-for-medical-treatment-last-year-fraser-institute-1.3486635
  • Colin Perkel. (2019). Concerns over Canada's insulin supply as soaring cost in U.S. has Americans heading north. National Post. Accessed on September 9, 2019, from: https://nationalpost.com/health/americans-head-to-canada-to-buy-cheap-insulin-some-worry-about-supply-here
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