‘People are Dying’: Bernie Sanders Heads to Canada With an Insulin Caravan

Yves here. It’s time to do more naming and shaming of health care industry abuses. Sanders calling attention to the grotesque overpricing of essential medications like isulin is a step in the right direction.

By Common Dreams staff. Originally published at Common Dreams

Presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders is heading to Canada on Sunday with a caravan of Type 1 diabetes patients seeking cheaper insulin to highlight the “corruption” of pharmaceutical companies and the toll taken on Americans who can’t afford the medicine.

CTV News reported:

(Sanders) waved to crowds as he entered the Olde Walkerville Pharmacy in Windsor, Ont. on Sunday.

Sanders stood next to a mother who said she spends roughly US $1,500 a month for insulin for her son. But in Windsor, she paid US $1,000 for a six-month supply.

A vial of insulin which Type 1 diabetics use to regulate their blood sugar costs about US $340 in the United States — roughly 10 times the Canadian price. An American Diabetes Association spokesperson previously told CTVNews.ca the average price of insulin has nearly tripled between 2002 and 2013.


“People are dying,” Sanders earlier told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union,” in an interview hosted from Detroit, Michigan.  He said the cost of insulin in the US has “soared in recent years” and “there is strong evidence that there is price fixing, that these companies simultaneously raise the prices at outrageous levels far, far, far more than the cost of production.”

He accused drug company executives of “corruption” and “unbelievable greed.” In Canada, he said, insulin is “one-tenth of the price.”

“One out of four people are rationing their insulin, and people are dying. That is unacceptable in the United States of America,” he claims.

Sanders said if elected president, “we’re going to take on the pharmaceutical industry, we’re going to have an attorney general who is going to deal with the incredible concentration of ownership and we’re going to use anti-trust legislation.”

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  1. The Rev Kev

    Saw this on the news the other night. One women going with that caravan was not going to get insulin for herself. She was there to honour her son who died because he had to ration his insulin out because of the cost and as a consequence died. What is disgusting about the reasons behind these stories is that big pharma would still make profits if they lowered their prices but it would not please Wall Street and the shareholders.
    When I saw this on the TV, for a moment I wondered what would happen if the police tried to intercept the people in this convoy and seize the cash that they had under the Civil Asset Forfeiture scheme talked about here the other day. You can’t tell me that there would not be a few officers working out how much money is involved versus the bad publicity that they would get.
    Would it be so bad if vital stuff like insulin production was nationalized? Or better yet price-capped like they do now in Colorado at $100 per month?


    1. lyman alpha blob

      It would be wonderful if insulin production were nationalized, along with the entire health care system.

      In a just society, no one should profit off the sickness and suffering of others.

  2. RMO

    The US has ten times the population of Canada and here in Canada we’re somewhat more spread out. If anything insulin should be easily available for LESS than it is here – if not for the pharmaceutical industry which finds it much more profitable to pretty much murder people.

    A good friend of mine is type 1. The thought of a system which would let her die if she wasn’t able to come up with an outrageously inflated price for insulin makes me want to kick holes in the walls.

    1. Noel Nospamington

      As a Canadian with diabetic family members, I am deeply concerned that Bernie will encourage even more Americans to buy their insulin and other medications here, and we will end up with drug shortages that risk the lives of Canadians.

      Let’s be frank, with 1/10 the population in a country which is significantly larger than the USA, we simply do not have the pharmaceutical resources in Canada to support our neighbours to the south.

      Furthermore, several multi-national drug companies have threaten to stop distribution of their products at the lower Canadian rates, if the volume of cross border drug purchases increases. Those drug companies do not want to risk their lucrative American cash cow, and wouldn’t think twice about harming Canadians to protect that cash cow.

      I am a big fan of Bernie and want to be a good neighbour to our American friends, despite the damage and grief Trump and the Republicans caused us, especially during the last few years.

      But Americans need to figure a way to stop their own corruption and clean up their own messes, instead of viciously throwing their northern neighbours under the bus.

      1. CoryP

        As a Canadian pharmacist, this comment bothers me and I think places the blame on the wrong party (ie US citizens).

        I don’t doubt that the pharmaceutical companies will do whatever they can to minimize such cross-border traffic. But whether or not we get gouged (further — our drug prices are already high by OECD standards) will have less to do with the behavior of Americans than the greed of the drug companies and the spinelessness of our Canadian politicians.

        Not that I have great hope in that regard as our system is being dismantled. But I think it’s wrongheaded to blame potential drug shortages on something like this — so much of the stuff comes through the same international supply lines anyway.

        1. Joe Well

          Thank you, CoryP. You give me hope for humanity.

          Blaming a neighboring country for bad things in your country that are the fault of your own elites is pretty much a worldwide phenomenon.

          And when it comes to insulin, it would not be that hard for Canada to find alternate sources if the drug companies got abusive. Not only international supply chains but just making it in-country.

      2. False Solace

        “viciously throwing their northern neighbours under the bus”

        Wow. So. These are people who are trying not to die. They are buying insulin so they won’t die. Their need exceeds this hypothetical danger you’re so hyped up about.

        The individuals who are “viciously throwing” others “under the bus” are Big Pharma execs, not these suffering patients. And if anyone deserves to go under the bus it’s the disgusting politicians who accept donations from Big Pharma execs and hangers-on. Bernie Sanders has committed to refusing all donations from them. I wonder who else has.

  3. cnchal

    > “Three drug companies made $14.5 billion in profit last year, control 90% of the insulin in this country, it’s just an amazing coincidence prices go up and and up and up, so what you do is you throw these people in jail if they engage in price fixing”

    If? There is clear collusion and price fixing between the pharma executives.

    What is no longer surprising is that no eclownomist will come along and offer an explanation why absurdly high prices for a “commodity” that is produced cheaply doesn’t draw a phalanx of competitors to undercut the pharma criminals at the top of the heap.

    What happened to the eclownomist’s vaunted “market solutions” to end up with these gross perversions?

    Steve Keen has an answer. ““Economics is the discipline of cluelessness about the physical world . . .”

    1. shinola

      An Econ. prof. I had used the medical bidness** as an example of a market fail. Because after all, “people will pay nearly anything if their life or health depends on it”.

      **’Bidness’ was a term he used to distinguish a scam (legal or not) from a legit. business. (He also used that term for stock brokers).

  4. Howard Beale IV

    Insulin used to be dirt cheap when it came from bovine sources – somewhere along the way someone in US Pharma figured out the process to using DNA recombination to make a more pure version of insulin. Because of this bovine insulin went by the wayside and the synthesized DNA took over.

    1. Pat

      While my cat was on insulin, he was prescribed a human recombination version of insulin. I watched the price of a small vial more than double over a year. And a half. There was no reason for that. Inflation was at less than 2%. There were no reported factory issues. And the online foreign distributor I never tried didn’t raise their price which started as less than half the US price. That was a couple of years ago. It has only gotten worse.

      Drug companies are gouging those with no choice. Period.

      BTW they have managed to do a very good job making sure legal biosimilar drugs do not appear. Can’t give the captured victim even a small choice.

    2. ewmayer

      Actually, recombinant-DNA-based insulin should get cheaper over time, due to finding of “better microbes” and economies of scale – long story short, once you’ve sorted the genetic manipulations you get them into an amenable microbe, which propagates same “for free” as long as you supply growth medium. Then just brew up as much of the stuff as you like in large fermentation vats, with extraction and purification amounting for the remaining cost. Wikipedia:

      The first genetically engineered, synthetic “human” insulin was produced using E. coli in 1978 by Arthur Riggs and Keiichi Itakura at the Beckman Research Institute of the City of Hope in collaboration with Herbert Boyer at Genentech.[7][8] Genentech, founded by Swanson, Boyer and Eli Lilly and Company, went on in 1982 to sell the first commercially available biosynthetic human insulin under the brand name Humulin.[8] The vast majority of insulin currently used worldwide is now biosynthetic recombinant “human” insulin or its analogues.[9]

      Recombinant insulin is produced either in yeast (usually Saccharomyces cerevisiae) or E. coli.[119] In yeast, insulin may be engineered as a single-chain protein with a KexII endoprotease (a yeast homolog of PCI/PCII) site that separates the insulin A chain from a c-terminally truncated insulin B chain. A chemically synthesized c-terminal tail is then grafted onto insulin by reverse proteolysis using the inexpensive protease trypsin; typically the lysine on the c-terminal tail is protected with a chemical protecting group to prevent proteolysis. The ease of modular synthesis and the relative safety of modifications in that region accounts for common insulin analogs with c-terminal modifications (e.g. lispro, aspart, glulisine). The Genentech synthesis and completely chemical synthesis such as that by Bruce Merrifield are not preferred because the efficiency of recombining the two insulin chains is low, primarily due to competition with the precipitation of insulin B chain.

    3. clonalantibody

      Recombinant DNA insulin is cheaper to produce than Bovine insulin. The three companies each produce a slightly different insulin, with slightly different release times – this hooks each user into the particular insulin, for to use the other company’s insulin is to invite complications. This effectively gives each company an additional monopoly. Once you have a monopoly, you are free to charge whatever price will maximize your profits.

  5. Phacops

    Don’t forget drug distribution and pharmacies in the equation.

    I agree that there is plenty of room for drug and device manufacturers to profit even when prices are dramatically reduced. Adding to the cost that Americans pay are the three major drug distributors . . . and people do not recognize that nobody purchases drugs directly from manufacturers, instead sourcing them from the distributors who add a markup of 50% to 1,000%. Then, there are the pharmacy benefits management companies like CVS or Caremark, who frequently demand that manufacturers set a base price to boost their profit otherwise a druf may not be included in the pharmacy’s formulary.

    A system of integrated corruption.

    Besides driving price reduction through manufacturers, the distribution system needs to be nationalized. I think our government can run an efficient, cost effective, distribution system fae more efficiently than our current for-profit drug wholesalers. Bernie should address that.

    1. rd

      US healthcare is a system of oligopolies and cartels operating within a government licensing framework that makes new competition difficult. This is why the myth of “competition” isn’t working in the US. The other countries do it through legislation and regulation to manage the conundrum of licensing, safety, and price.

  6. Chris

    The twitter comments about Sen. Sanders are fascinating. This is all well beyond any Brockian trolling. There is a dedicated anti-Sanders cohort online and IRL that sincerely hates the man. They’re not just the media either! I think we’re past the frog in slowly boiling water stage. I think we’ve entered crabs in a pot territory. There is a crowd of people at all levels who refuse to let our country escape the current situation. Many of them don’t even profit from the current arrangement. They just won’t let Sanders or anyone like him get a win.

    1. False Solace

      Many of them are paid shills. They function to make others believe their views are more popular than they actually are, and to influence people like you to not participate. So the louder and angrier they are the better, because it deters normal people from speaking.

    2. Hepativore

      Look at the rank-and-file commenters on Balloon Juice, specifically Annie Laurie and her ilk. These people have become so embittered over Hillary Clinton’s loss that they constantly lash out at progressives for being “Bernie bros” and “purity ponies”. Somehow, they have convinced themselves that Sanders is some sort of racist, misogynist agent of Putin. Obama and Hillary are martyrs in the face of an unwashed and ungrateful electorate that dared to spurn the wisdom of their betters by not bowing down to establishment Democrat wisdom and electing Trump. Therefore, they constantly make comments about how horrible Sanders is and how it is okay if we let the peasants in the South and Midwest suffer since they are probably uneducated and most likely voted for Trump anyway.

      This is largely the mindset of the neoliberal “10%” Democrats distilled in its purest form. Sadly, I feel that these people cannot be reasoned with.

  7. BlueMoose

    Innocent question: is it legal to do this (bring insulin in over the border)? I ask because my son is type-1 and even though he has insurance coverage, it is still a financial burden. He lives in Montana, so it might be doable. There is a shelf-life for insulin but even having a 3 month supply would be reassuring. I don’t think in the US he is allowed to get more than 1 month supply.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Drug reimportation is supposedly against the law, but I’ve never heard of individual patients being punished, and I think the remedy is for the border types to seize the drugs, as opposed to otherwise sanction the individual. And my belief is the drug reimportation rules are aimed at intercepting shipments. But people who know this terrain should speak up.

      And if the drug was not reimported (as in not a US drug), there’s no problem.

  8. Denis Drew

    With our current drug patent/profit driven research scheme we are paying big pharma over 20 year patent run outs $200-300 billion dollars NOT TO WIPE OUT HEPATITIS C. A drug that costs $200 a 99% effective treatment to manufacture is priced between $50,000 and $100,000.

    When the patents run out we will be able to wipe out the disease in one year for less than a billion dollars. One treatment only costs $200 to manufacture

    Business people build the world — I don’t know how they do it — taking chances, innovating — but they are the plague of science research misdirection.

  9. Eclair

    “People are dying.”

    Well, that may be the point. The Third Reich had to identify, round up and then kill, disabled people. We can simply raise the price of a vital hormone that some people lack and, voila, we kill off the ‘defective’ humans. Better yet, just the poor ones. Pricing is rationing, and that’s what the drug companies, with the wink and a nod from our government, are doing.

    It’s a form of genocide.

  10. bruce

    I don’t have diabetes, nor do any friends or family. If this were not so, I can positively assure you that I would have set up a robust cross-border exercise by now.

  11. eg

    I remain hopeful that a national pharmacare program may be coming to Canada soon as the natural extension of our single-payer health delivery system.

    1. CoryP

      From the whitepapers (initially typed shitepapers LOL) I’ve read, I wouldn’t be surprised if the proposed solution is Obamacare for drugs — ie some sort of mandatory private insurance scheme for those that aren’t covered. I’m not convinced any of our 4 (four!) neoliberal parties has any desire to create or expand a genuine public service…

    2. John Farnham

      Medicare as originally proposed included pharmacare. It was due to corporate resistance that this was not the case – and we took what we could get.

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