Summary: Diabetes test strips can cost a lot. We heard prices ranging from 15 cents a strip, to $9 for a box of 50 strips (18 cents each) up to $1.50 per strip. A little more than 60 cents a strip is not uncommon. The strips are used by diabetics to test their blood glucose. While sometimes strips are fully covered by insurance, quite often they are not, as we learned in our #PriceCheck project, crowdsourcing health care prices in California.
People with diabetes wanted us to know that the high price of test strips quite often meant they were not able to consistently monitor their blood glucose. That was true both for uninsured people and insured people, who said their insurance policies often did not cover strips, or covered fewer than the doctor prescribed, or covered them with a hefty copay.
The diabetes test strip price survey is part of our #PriceCheck project, crowdsourcing health care prices with our partners at KQED public radio in San Francisco and KPCC/Southern California Public Radio in Los Angeles, with funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
Because they are not testing their blood glucose, some people told us, they felt that they were guessing on treatment — and therefore were more likely to encounter the serious complications that diabetes can bring, like cardiovascular disease, nerve damage, kidney disease, eye damage (including blindness), foot damage (including amputation), skin conditions, hearing impairment and Alzheimer’s disease.
Diabetes relates to the way your body uses blood sugar or glucose. If you have diabetes, either Type 1 or Type 2, you have too much glucose in your blood, and that can lead to these complications. (Here’s a great Mayo Clinic discussion of diabetes.)
Diabetics commonly measure their blood glucose level with a meter and a test strip. That testing level tells whether their glucose levels are in range or not, and thus whether they need to use medications. The test strip has chemicals that react with the glucose in the blood; measurements may be needed multiple times in a day.
Why does it matter? One of our community members, Mark Winters, told our partner KPCC in Los Angeles: “The situation with the pricing of diabetic necessities has become more than worrisome; gouging for a profit is immoral.” Winters said his strips went from roughly 33 cents a strip at Target, to more than a dollar — so he shops on the web, where he gets boxes of 50 strips for about $31.50 per box, including shipping — a little more than 60 cents per strip.
One commenter from the KPCC web site wrote: “Walmart sells the Relion Prime meter for $16.24 and the strips are $9.00 per 50. That is the best pricing I have found. And just so people know, all of the different brands of meters are required to work within set specifications. My Relion meter is just as good as any of the higher priced meters. I am a diabetic (Type 1) and have had to self pay for the past 9 years. Diabetes is not cheap.”
Another community member, @T1Runner, on the Diabetes Social Media tweetchat, said: “http://www.ihealthlabs.com/glucometer/ihealth-align/ 12.99 for 50! Ihealth Iphone meter #DSMA”
One interesting thing: While community members for our other procedures put their prices into our #PriceCheck widget and thus entered their information into our searchable database, this particular query brought only a half-dozen responses in the widget but a lot of responses in the form of comments on our partners’ blogs and the Facebook page at KQED in San Francisco.
Facebook chatting about test strips
Listen to our community members talk about their experiences on the KQED Facebook page:
“They are ridiculously high. And to get the true measure of how your glucose is reacting to food, you should test often but that’s not possible when they cost so much. You would think the insurance companies would want to pay this cost and help people early then pay for the cost of the effects of diabetes after years of not being able to monitor because of the costs.”
“I get mine through Medicaid it’s free.”
“I went from Anthem insurance at work, which paid 100% for one brand of test strips, to Blue Shield, which has a co-pay. I don’t test as often as I should because the test strips are too expensive.”
“I don’t test my blood anymore because I can’t afford the test strips.”
“They are so expensive.”
“I can’t do it everyday cause so expensive.”
“Yes, test strips are very expensive. Try to spread them out. Wish there was a better alternative.”
“I finally switched to walmart rely on [Ed.: Relion] prime meter and strips. meter about 17.00. strips 50 for 9.00 or 100 for 18.95. Now if i could buy my insulin. No insurance and fall [through] every crack. UGh.”
“am type 1 and insurance will only allow me ten strips a day. use double that depending on hypos or exercising or sickness etc. i recently ran out before my prescription would refill and had to pay hundreds of dollars out of pocket for emergency supply. they are 1.50 a pop over the counter at Walgreens. for me the strips are medical equipment too and covered under a different deductible. i haven’t figured out the real cost to me after insurance pays because my Covered CA plan is so messed up!”
“They are ridiculously expensive. I go without them for periods of time due to the cost and just guess how much insulin I need.”
“I am diabetic and it costs me about $100 monthly.”
“Medicare picks up the cost for me. Zero our of my pocket directly.”
“I pay more in my monthly medical insurance cost to cover Durable Medical Equipment, which is where most of Type 1 medical expenses are. The insulin is covered under the prescription portion but the needle tip, glucose meter, glucose test strips, ketone test strips etc are all under Durable Medical Equipment.”
“They cost more than 1.00 each and you would think they would want you to test more often to be able to cut the complications. That is the real cost of this. When I had no insurance and could not get any help I used my credit card till they wouldn’t let me use it anymore. For insulin and strips too. My insurance pays a small portion and I have gone bankrupt over this once, sure hate to do it again!”
“My husband is type 2 and the meds are covered by our insurance but not the strips. The cost is $75.”
“Test strips are a huge expense. About $100 a month.”
“Both my grandchildren use these strips and they are more than a dollar each!”
15 cents a strip — and cheaper without insurance
One person pays $5 to Kaiser as a co-pay for every size of prescription: “Kaiser charges me the same co-pay per pickup, no matter how many strips my doctor prescribed to me. Each month I get 200 OneTouchUltra strips for $10. To buy the same make/model of strips at retail at CVS/Walgreen etc, have to pay over a dollar per strip.”
Another buys a box of 100 for $17.88 at Wal-Mart (17.8 cents a strip): “I have used many brands of glucose test strips over the 30 years I have been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and this brand works just as well as the more expensive ones.”
Another pays $46 for 300 (15 cents a strip): “We buy test strips for a relative in Nicaragua so pay full price to send them to him. Found price online through Amazon of $46.00 for a count of 300 (6 boxes of 50 strips total).”
Another pays $6.66 to Aetna Home Delivery as a co-pay for a prescription priced at $165.63: “Based on 90 day mail order prescription of 6 boxes of 100.”
Another pays $25 for a box of 50: “I can get the test strips cheaper, out of pocket at Costco and Walmart if I buy 100. My father has Kaiser Advantage gets the same strips (3 month supply) for free. This is not even a 30 day supply, I need 60 (90 right now) normally.”
A second person paying $25 for a box of 50: “Cheaper to get them online than through the pharmacy with my insurance.”
One person pays a $158.68 copay for 13 boxes of 50 strips, total of 650, with a sticker price of $793.39: “13 boxes of 50, Verio IQ strips.”
Why are strips so expensive? The question of why is beyond the scope of our reporting, though more than one person has asked why this should be true. If you know, please let us know at info (at) clearhealthcosts (dot) com.
(Update: On Oct. 30, 2014, one of our community members reported this. “At Shop Rite Wharton NJ one touch ultra for 100 test strips 159.99. Freestyle 100 were 158.88. Costco pricing: One Touch Ultra 100 strips 131.79. Contour 100 106.89. True test 100 was 51.89. Pricing for October 30, so sick.”)
(Update: In January 2017, a Reddit discussion of the topic focused on One Drop, a mobile solution with a subscription that covers strips and monitoring. Others chimed in about Walmart’s offerings: “Their ReliON Prime meter is $9, and the strips are $9 for 50 or $18 for 100.” Costco was cited several times, and one person talked about buying on eBay.)
What can you do?
Kathleen Wall, director of the Los Angeles Diabetes Alliance, told our partners at KPCC that, while many diabetics she knows are insured, about 40 percent didn’t test their blood sugar as often as they should, or didn’t test it at all, because they couldn’t afford the test strips.
Rebecca Plevin, the KPCC reporter, wrote in this blog post: “Wall says she encourages her clients to call their insurance company and be their own advocate. An important question to ask, she says, is whether they’re using the company’s preferred – and oftentimes, cheaper – meter. If not, patients should call their medical provider, and ask to get a prescription for the preferred meter. They should also ask how many test strips their insurance company will cover within a certain period. For the uninsured, she recommends the more inexpensive, retail-brand glucose meters, sold at stores like Walmart and Ralph’s.”
- Shop around.
- If you’re insured, check with your insurance company about types of strips, and ask if the coverage levels change. What’s covered and what’s not changes, sometimes from month to month.
- You might be better off not using your insurance. That’s right, it can be cheaper to pay cash.
- Ask your insurance company if has suggestions to help; also ask your doctor.