If you have diabetes, taking care of your body and mind is hard work, a 24/7 job. Unfortunately, figuring out how to pay for your medical needs can be equally difficult and time-consuming. And for many people, the COVID-19 crisis has added another layer of financial stress.
The American Diabetes Association reports the average person with diabetes spends more than $9,600 a year in related medical expenses. To help you reduce the extra financial burden, here are some tips on how to get what you need and save money.
Many Americans now know about outrageously high insulin prices, thanks to our diabetes activist community and responsive media. But people with diabetes (PWDs) know there are plenty of other more mundane expenses too — for one thing, the costs of adhesive wipes, lancets, alcohol swabs, and other non-prescription supplies that can really add up.
The good news is that you can find some good deals for these online.
On eBay, for example, a pack of 50 AllKare Medical Adhesive Wipes are available for as little as $9. When I went to my local pharmacy, they charged more than twice that much for the same item. If you don’t trust eBay, sites like AvacareMedical and ShoppinSimple have the same product for $12 to $14.
My mother, who grew up during the Great Depression, often urged me to “clip coupons” from supermarkets and pharmacies (that was back when people still relied on paper and scissors to save documents, and dinosaurs roamed the Earth). I resisted that for years. Well, now I’m finally listening to her.
A recent quick search yielded coupons from Walgreens offering savings discounts on diabetic test strips and glucose meters. Walgreens also has a “weekly ad” with deals and a separate list of coupons, as does retail pharmacy chain CVS. Many pharmacies, supermarkets, and discount stores also have circulars and handouts that you can find if you shop in person. Thanks, Mom!
A number of apps are available to help you search local pharmacies to compare prices for prescription and non-prescription items. These include GoodRx, WellRx, and PharmacyChecker.com. They’re particularly helpful for those who don’t have insurance and need to pay list prices.
The prices vary enormously, so you need to look around carefully. The quality of the prescription drugs available from online pharmacies also varies, so you need to be cautious.
To help you, the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP) culled through pharmacies with a verification process and has come up with a list of the better ones. For example, if you’re checking out an outfit called “Uncle Frankie’s Drugs R’ Us,” and find they’re not on the list, don’t use them.
A few years ago, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) tapped its member orgs to help create an online search tool of patient financial assistance programs called the Medicine Assistance Tool (MAT). It does not include insulin, but does include syringes and test strips, and a host of other diabetes meds like Metformin, Glyburide, and Byetta.
You start by searching for the meds you need, and then are prompted to enter information about your annual income and insurance situation; of course, eligibility requirements apply. Note that MAT is not its own patient assistance program, but rather a search engine for many of the programs and resources the pharma industry has been offering for decades. It’s definitely worth a search if you’re in need of low-cost meds.
One of the most expensive items for diabetes is insulin, which anyone can see just from watching news stories and Congressional hearings these days. Some PWDs have turned to pay-it-forward efforts within the diabetes community to help each other out. And before the coronavirus pandemic, some were resorting to traveling outside the United States to obtain less expensive insulin.
Another route to more affordable insulin is to take advantage of savings programs from insulin manufacturers.
In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Big Three insulin makers and a few other entities have announced new affordability options:
In 2019, this company launched a new “authorized generic” insulin known as Insulin Lispro, or half-priced Humalog, available at $137 per vial, or $265 per box of five pens. This was aimed at people without insurance, the underinsured, or those with high deductibles who might need a less expensive option.
Now, in response to the COVID-19 crisis, Lilly announced in April 2020 a new Insulin Value Program that caps copays at $35 for its insulin brands — notably, for both patients with insurance as well as those without insurance. To apply, call the Lilly Diabetes Solution Center at 833-808-1234 during weekday business hours. Operators will explain eligibility limits as well as specific terms and conditions.
“The calls are simple, the average time on the phone is about 10 minutes, and there’s no paperwork to fill out,” Lilly states. “We have operators who can take calls in Spanish and we can translate information into about 40 languages.” For those approved, the savings card is typically emailed to them within 24 hours, the company says.
Novo has long offered a patient assistance savings program to provide discount insulin to eligible individuals, along with copay assistance and savings cards to pay as little as $25 for a vial of insulin to eligible patients at their NovoCare site.
In April 2020, also in response to the COVID-19 crisis, Novo announced a free 90-day supply of insulin to qualifying patients. Applicants need to provide documentation showing loss of healthcare benefits, such as a job termination notice or job status change, or proof that they’re now dependent on COBRA benefits. People applying for this program must have a valid prescription for a Novo Nordisk insulin and meet certain eligibility criteria, which can be found on NovoCare.com or by calling 844-NOVO4ME.
In May 2019, this company announced that its ValYou Savings Program requires a flat fee of just $99 for up to 10 vials or boxes of pens for its various insulin brands, including Lantus, Toujeo, Apidra, and Admelog. Considering that people are sometimes forced to pay two or three times as much for the same quantity of insulin, that’s a big savings.
Eligible for this program are people who are not covered under federal or state programs like Medicare, Medicaid, or Tri-Care, and don’t qualify for other patient assistance programs.
Due to unexpected financial hardships as a result of COVID-19, the company has made temporary changes to their Sanofi Patient Connection program, which provides free medications to qualified low- and middle-income patients, including:
- Expanding acceptable financial documents for proof of income
- Patients already participating can now make an early reorder of their prescription(s) to ensure they have a 90-day supply
- Extension of the Temporary Patient Assistance Program (TPAP) for those who may be Medicaid eligible but are awaiting a response from 90 days to 180 days
Sanofi has also published a COVID-19 response page, with more information on savings resources and the company’s efforts related to the pandemic.
Afrezza Inhalable Insulin
If you’re using or want to try MannKind’s Afrezza, you can fill your prescription for a low $15 copay using a downloadable savings card. When one promo runs out, there’s almost always a fresh one online to be downloaded and used for your next refill.
If you do not have prescription drug coverage, cannot afford your meds, or your insurance denies covering Afrezza, MannKind also has several patient assistance options. For example, Medicare Part D patients may pay as little as $8.50 per Afrezza prescription.
The big retail discount chain offers older-school Novolin R and N insulins starting at just $25 a vial. A prescription is required. Note that these are different formulations from newer analogue insulins used by most patients today, so you shouldn’t switch without the advice of your healthcare team.
All of these programs have eligibility requirements that can present challenges — and they clearly don’t come close to solving the systematic issues behind outrageously high insulin prices — but they are still options that can help save money for those in need.
Diabetes device companies have also begun offering assistance for those impacted by the COVID-19 crisis worldwide.
Dexcom announced on April 27, 2020, that it was offering a patient assistance program for existing U.S. customers of its continuous glucose monitoring product who’ve lost health insurance coverage as a result of the pandemic. The program is launching in May 2020, and will continue during the extent of the crisis in the United States.
For existing U.S. customers who qualify, the program will offer:
- as many as two shipments of a 90-day supply of Dexcom CGM system supplies, with each shipment consisting of one transmitter and three boxes of three sensors
- a reduced patient cost of $45 per 90-day supply shipment
Those with federal or state government coverage (such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Veterans Affairs benefits) are not eligible. Dexcom also notes that for eligibility, patients will need to submit an application and documentation showing loss of healthcare benefits.
Insulet, makers of the Omnipod tubeless insulin pump, announced on April 16, 2020, that they would be also be expanding U.S. financial assistance for current U.S. customers impacted by COVID-19. Those who meet financial eligibility criteria can get up to a 6-month supply of products (60 Pods) free of charge. Details about that program are available by calling 800-591-3455. This program runs through Dec. 31, 2020.
If it’s glucose test strips you’re after, consider shopping around for deals with companies that bundle strips together with other products and services for a single combined monthly fee.
Lots of plans are available from One Drop. In one of their simplest, for about $23 per month you can get their meter and 50 test strips delivered to your door monthly, plus access to a Certified Diabetes Educator (CDE) via their mobile app. For higher fees, you can get an unlimited supply of strips along with the same benefits.
Some people, on the other hand, are turning to a growing “gray market” for test strips, in which commercial groups buy strips from PWDs and other sources and resell them. Go online and you will find more than a few outfits doing this, with names like TestStripSearch.com, QuickCash4TestStrips.com, and Stripsupply.com.
We checked into some of these and were underwhelmed. On StripSupply.com, 100 Accu-Chek Aviva test strips are now available for $59 a month. But the same quantity of strips is available online from CVS for $5 less ($54.99). Keep in mind that the quality control in these online outfits can be sketchy.
If you’re having trouble paying for all your diabetes meds, don’t hesitate to ask about samples whenever you visit with your healthcare provider (whether in-person or online). I can’t count the number of times doctors have given me free medications and supplies during the 58 years I’ve had type 1 diabetes.
However, keep in mind that it’s much harder to get samples of prescription drugs like insulin these days, as the practice has been banned by an increasing number of academic medical centers and private clinics.
Another path to freebies is to attend a local diabetes expo or health fair, where samples are often provided along with health screenings and classes. This will hopefully be an option again soon once the ban on public gatherings has been lifted.
Finally, more than a few PWDs donate or trade drugs and supplies with each other online. For many people, one of the many reasons to get active in the Diabetes Online Community (DOC) is that if you can’t afford necessary stuff or run out of it, they can find plenty of people out there with defective pancreases who have big hearts and will respond to those asking for help.
There are many clever paths to saving money on your diabetes necessities. Don’t just pay full price and regret it. Instead, think about shopping around online, researching Pharma discount programs, and asking other PWDs if they have supplies to spare.
Dan Fleshler is a writer and media strategist in New York City. In 2013, he started a blog called The Insulin Chronicles to share mysteries encountered and lessons he’s learned from living with type 1 diabetes since 1962.
Over the last two decades, his op-eds and feature stories have appeared in the New York Times, Village Voice, Forward, New York Jewish Week, Ha’Aretz, Reform Judaism magazine, and elsewhere.