Travis Paulson was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of 13. Over time, he began to need more and more of the drug to maintain a healthy blood sugar level, and it was increasingly difficult to afford. When he was diagnosed, a vial of insulin cost about eight or ten dollars. Now he must fork out around $300 to $350 for one bottle of the life-saving medication.
Now that he’s unemployed, lives with his mother in the small home he grew up in, and gets money disability and Medicare benefits instead of working, he’s just barely able to pay the $700 out-of-pocket cost of his monthly insulin. Sadly, he’s doing much better now than when he was working a full-time job, evidence that the current system is wasting talent and money by encouraging people not to work, even if they’re able to.
When the 46-year-old Minnesota man worked as a private investigator, a job he loved and wishes he was still doing, the health insurance he had was simply not enough. He wasn’t able to pay for his full insulin prescription each month, leaving him to ration the small amount of insulin he had, unaware that he was risking his life by doing so.
“Now I know that people have died from this,” says Paulson. “You can die from diabetic ketoacidosis in hours, not days or weeks or months. I could have easily died in my sleep and didn’t know it.”
On top of rationing, Paulson also skipped meals to keep his blood sugar from increasing, thereby reducing his need for insulin. But not eating at all, especially for days at a time like Paulson sometimes did, comes with its own dangerous side effects.
The rationing and lack of food didn’t end up killing Paulson, but it did have some hefty side effects. Every time Paulson rationed insulin, he was left feeling sick and in pain with flu-like symptoms. He has also developed lupus, celiac disease, an allergy to sunlight, rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis, all of which are autoimmune disorders he believes insulin rationing may have contributed to. On top of that, he has severe eye problems, for which he has undergone 25 surgeries and requires monthly eye injections. He cannot drive at night or see when he first wakes up, and the possibility of complete blindness looms menacingly before him.
Now that Paulson is finally able to manage his diabetes properly with the help of disability and Medicare, as well as his modest living situation, he’s on a mission to delve into the issue of high insulin prices and its tragic effects on working-class Americans. He’s found that most assistance programs have a $750 limit, and you won’t qualify if you have more than $2,000 in the bank, a car that’s worth more than $5,000, or other modest assets.
Paulson believes the pharmaceutical industry is to blame for the exorbitant prices of insulin in the U.S., but the federal and state government aren’t helping by failing to institute reforms. Insulin is more costly than most drugs because it costs a lot to make, but a lack of competition is also driving up prices, as there are only three main insulin manufacturers in the U.S.
“On medicines that have been out for 20, 25 years, there’s no reason that they should be holding a patent on it still,” Paulson says. “There’s no competition.”
In an attempt to prove that insulin doesn’t need to be nearly as expensive as it is, Paulson has been comparing insulin prices in a variety of nations around the globe. So far, he’s found that U.S. insulin price per vial, which is around $350, far exceed countries like Canada ($40), Taiwan ($40), Greece ($50), and Italy ($60).
“So really, if you’re American, you’re going to pay more for being an American,” Paulson says. “That’s about what it comes down to.”
Paulson has been contacting senators and calling for the adoption of solutions like price transparency, earlier expiration of patents, and deregulation to force competition, but he’s had very little luck so far. Hopefully things will turn around before it’s too late for so many Americans who are currently rationing insulin.
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?