TAMPA — Aida Delgado’s health problems began a decade ago with high blood pressure and a kidney infection that required emergency hospitalization. Her recovery was painful and slow, but she thought the worst was behind her.
She was wrong.
Four years ago, she started to feel tired and weak. Her vision became increasingly blurry. Delgado, 67, was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, which causes high-blood sugar levels. Her doctor recommended she take insulin, a lifesaving drug, to control her blood glucose level because her pancreas doesn’t produce enough of the hormone.
Without health insurance and a steady job, Delgado started paying over $400 each month two years ago for a five-pack of injection pens to manage her blood glucose levels. She dipped into her savings. She asked her family and friends in Puerto Rico for help to get by.
Each disposable pre-filled pen contains 300 insulin units per milliliter. Once a day, Delgado uses 20 units.
“It is a very strong emotional and economic blow,” said Delgado. “I have managed to get by, but imagine all those people who have no one to help them. How can they survive?”
Delgado was planning to apply for public assistance as a diabetic who depends on insulin injections. She recently rushed in an application for Medicaid to cover her long-term care.
The economic sacrifice and emotional burden directly affects low-income Hispanics who need insulin to get on with their lives and take care of their families. COVID-19, housing inequities and inflation have worsened many problems that have affected Latinos for decades, like obesity — the leading risk factor for Type 2 diabetes — lack of healthy food and language barriers.
The price of insulin has exploded in the last two decades by 262% from 2007 to 2018, according to a 2020 study from the University of Pittsburgh. The price surge has forced many people and uninsured families to cover the full cost of the medication, cut their doses or even postpone paying for other medical care. Nearly 30 million people live with diabetes in the U.S.
To lower list prices, Congress passed a bill in August to cap monthly copayments for insulin products at $35 for people with Medicare. But for those who lack health insurance, are diabetic and need insulin, the burden remains.
The price of the insulin varies and depends on how much you buy. A long-acting insulin can cost over $400 without insurance and only $49 with a private health care plan.
For Latinos, the higher costs can be difficult to shoulder as a disproportionate share of people with diabetes are Hispanic. They account for about 19% of the U.S. population but are 70% more likely than non-Hispanic white adults to be diagnosed with diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Hillsborough County, at least 10% of Hispanics have diabetes; in Pasco, 7%; Pinellas 13%; and Polk, 18%, according to a 2019 study by the Florida Department of Health, the most recent data available.
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In a nation where obesity is widespread — and one of the several risk factors related to diabetes — Hispanics suffer even more, according to the federal disease agency. Among people ages 20 and older, 80% of Latinos are obese compared to 70% among non-Hispanic whites.
Dr. Jane L. Delgado, president and chief executive officer of the National Alliance for Hispanic Health, said Latinos can prevent or delay serious health problems, including Type 2 diabetes.
“We can make a commitment to eating in a healthier way, working to maintain a healthier size, and increasing physical activity,” Delgado said.
But for people like Laura Sanchez, 40, a Mexican immigrant who lives in Wimauma, the idea of making lifestyle changes is complicated.
She lost her job three years ago as a farmworker because of her health issues. Her kidney had deteriorated. Her employer kept her job open for two months, but unable to return to work, she decided to stay home this past summer.
Sanchez is diabetic and needs insulin but has to pay more than $100 each month to buy a couple of doses. Before her illness got worse, she was helping her husband pay bills. She said now she feels like a prisoner in her own body. Without health insurance and a very limited income, Sanchez said she prays for better insulin prices.
“It’s not easy because some days you feel good, and some days not,” Sanchez said.
Ana Lamb, a diabetic, said she’d like to see more attention given to Hispanics, insulin prices and diabetes.
“We need more resources for minorities and our low-income families,” said Lamb, 47, a community activist who works in Ruskin and Wimauma.
Instead of standard treatments, Lamb chose to use natural and traditional medicines, like nopal and aloe vera, which she mixes in juices or smoothies.
Poliana Conte, of Ruskin, another diabetic, said she is determined to learn more about insulin prices and the importance of following a healthy diet. Conte, 42, is an insulin user, a caregiver and a mother of four. Born in Brazil, she moved to Tampa two decades ago.
Since she came to the United States, she’s had to work six days a week while taking care of her children. Her circumstances changed five years ago when she was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. She can’t afford the injection pens needed to treat her condition.
“It’s something that can easily burn 40 or 50 percent of your own salary if you need more than one pack,” she said. Sometimes it happens and it’s sad because you can’t save up.”
She works preparing meals at a hospice in Ruskin, six days a week. She struggles to pay rent and utilities because she has to buy her own insulin. Her oldest daughter and Conte’s boyfriend help cover the cost, which is about $500 every 40 days.
The government should limit price increases on all prescription drugs and not only insulin, she said.
“It would be an act of social justice,” Conte said.
Yadira Sanchez, executive director for Poder Latinx, an organization dedicated to building political power and civic participation within Hispanic communities in Florida, Georgia and Arizona, said that legislation to regulate the prices of essential medicines such as insulin must address and recognize the needs of the entire population.
“We really need to reduce costs of insulin for everyone, especially now that we’re facing very difficult financial times,” said Sanchez. “We have many challenges, but this is very important.”
These insulin manufacturers offer their own Patient Assistance Program: Lilly Cares: (800) 545-6962. Sanofi’s Patient Assistance Connection: (888) 847-4877.
The Florida Department of Health (Hillsborough County) has a Spanish-language campaign. For more information, visit: https://hillsborough.floridahealth.gov/programs-and-services/wellness-programs/diabetes/index.html
Find out more about Florida’s Insulin Distribution Program here: https://www.floridahealth.gov/diseases-and-conditions/diabetes/Insulin.html
The National Diabetes Prevention Program was created in 2010 to address the increasing burden of prediabetes and type 2 diabetes in the United States. There’s a program designed for Hispanics and Latinos at risk. Visit: https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/spanish/prevention/index.html
The American Heart Association and American Diabetes Association aims to increase awareness and action among Latinos. For more information and free resources visit: https://diabetesdecorazon.org/
Latino Affairs Reporter
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