When diabetics can't afford insulin, they turn to the black market. This Michigan woman helps them do it

Posted at 1:27 PM, May 22, 2019

DETROIT — Insulin is the difference between life and death for people with Type 1 diabetes. They say they are tired of watching the cost of the drug continue to increase in the United States.

WXYZ went to Jillian Rippolone’s home as she met with diabetics. They spoke about their struggles getting the insulin they need. It's a struggle Rippolone first experienced when, as a child, her parents lost their health insurance.

“We were turned away because we didn’t have the money at the time to afford our insulin, which is this little bottle right here," she said. "This was $200 in the '90s. I needed three of them.”

Rippolone says she feared for her life as her parents worked to get the money needed. Now, she says the situation is worse for many patients because the cost of insulin has increased in the United States.

“For my 30 day supply, it is $1,020,” Rippolone said.

Michele Busticker, a woman meeting with other diabetics at Rippolone’s home, said she thought she was covered because she had health insurance. Then she dropped a vile on the floor. Insurance wouldn't cover a replacement.

“I had to actually admit myself to the emergency room to get insulin to survive,” Busticker said.

Mike Cowan says he turned to Rippolone for help when an Uber passenger stole his medicine as he drove.

“Insurance isn’t going to make up for that, so I had to seek it out on the black market,” Cowan said.

The black market he turned to is a vast network of people who offer insulin online. Rippolone is a leader in it.

“Because when there is a diabetic in need you get it. Because if you don’t get insulin you are going to die,” Rippolone said.

Diabetics use different amounts of insulin each month, based on their blood sugar. Rippolone runs a Facebook page where people trade surplus insulin, at no cost, to people in need. Many send their extra insulin to her so she can distribute it. It is not legal.

“This is our life support. If we don’t get this we can get DKA. We can die,” Cowan said. DKA, or diabetic ketoacidosis , is a serious condition that can lead to a diabetic coma or even death.

WXYZ medical editor Dr. Partha Nandi says patients should ask their doctors for help before turning to the black market and risk getting a medicine that has been mishandled or bought from a country with fewer regulations

“There is no way you can verify the quality, or that you are getting the right substance or something that can harm you,” Nandi said.

Rippolone said she doesn’t just get medicine from her Facebook page. She and other diabetics regularly caravan to Canada. WXYZ followed her on a trip to Yee Pharmacy in Windsor, a city in Ontario, Canada.

"So our insulin is $41 (in Canada) and in the U.S. it would be $340 — and that is with insurance,” Rippolone said.

“Since the government pays for it, it limits how much it wants to pay for it. So that is why our insulin is cheaper,” said Dr. Richard Yee of Yee Pharmacy.

Yee sees dozens of Americans every month coming to Canada for insulin. He says Canada allows it to be sold for personal use, up to a three-month supply. Rippolone said she may donate the insulin she buys if she ends up not needing it.

People who hear about her endeavor sometimes ask why diabetics in need don’t buy the discounted insulin Walmart advertises. Rippolone says her doctors have warned it is slow acting, and therefore not as effective for everyone at regulating blood sugar as the fast-acting insulin she prefers.

“This is a hormone. So the fact we have to use the black market to get the hormone we need is ridiculous,” Rippolone said. “This is what people use to stay alive. Are you going to tell somebody no?”