High Cost Of Diabetic Test Strips Drives "Grey Market"

Esther Honig, WOSU-FM
05/03/2016

More than 29 million Americans live with diabetes. For some it can be a struggle to afford the many medications and devices necessary to keep the disease under control. That has led to a lucrative market where prescriptions are bought and resold.

On a Friday morning, the Marion Franklin Intergenerational Center holds a health fair for local residents. Registered nurse Barbara Parker is there to screen for diabetes.  Using a Lancet, a small needle, she pricks the skin on the tip of the finger, then slips a thin glucose test strip into the handheld meter.

“Now we’re just going to touch the test strip to the drop of blood," says Parker.

The meter sounds with a quick "beep" and reads the results on a grey digital screen.

Anyone who lives with diabetes knows monitoring blood sugar levels is essential to prevent long-term complications, like kidney failure. But for the uninsured or underinsured those strips can cost about a dollar apiece. Many people need to test everyday, some several times a day, and the cost adds up quickly. That’s why in recent years a sort of underground market has started to emerge.

Small makeshift companies offer cash for your extra test strips. They advertise on the radio, Facebook, and Craigslist; Homemade signs hang from light posts, often in low-income neighborhoods urging people to sell their strips. A box of 50 test strips has a retail cost of about $75. On the street, patients can sell them for $15. Those companies will turn around and sell them to someone else for about $60.00.

Laura Hall is an Assistant Professor at the College of Pharmacy at OSU. She says reselling glucose test strips falls under something called the “grey market”--it’s not illegal but generally not condoned by healthcare professionals.

“Those test strips may be expired, they may be resold in a different container..[.]. It could be that they’re counterfeit test strips out there,” said Hall.

The FDA regards this market as “unsafe” because customers can’t be sure of what they’re getting. If the test strips are stored in hot temperatures they’ll give inaccurate readings. There’s even a risk they could be contaminated with someone else’s blood. Regardless Hall says this market exists out of necessity.

“There are needs out there that are not being met, or people can’t afford the test strip. Maybe it’s a supply and demand economic sort of thing,” said Hall.

Hall thinks a gap in health coverage likely drives this market, especially for people with type 2 diabetes.

“You don’t get diagnosed until you’re in your 40s and 50s, and often times that’s the uninsured patient population that we see here in Columbus,” said Hall.

The supply Hall says, likely comes from people who have a surplus of test strips and could use the extra cash. Maybe they’ve been over prescribed by their doctor and the cost is covered by their insurance or Medicaid. Perhaps a relative with diabetes passed away and had some strips leftover.

A seller on Craigslist advertised three boxes of strips for $50.00. He did not want to identify himself, but said he preferred to sell them to a diabetic who needs them, not to one of those companies that resells them.

“I think it’s a total rip-off, it’s not about the person’s issue it’s about companies basically taking advantage of people and making money,” he said.

He says got these test strips from a relative who passed away a few years ago, and knows there are a lot of risks implicit in this market.

“Honestly, I mean to say the least it should be downright illegal,” he said.

While there’s no official data, this market has been reported on in several major U.S. cities from Palm Beach Florida to Seattle. The FDA has initiated criminal proceedings in cases where strips are expired, counterfeit or defective.