Shining Light on the Cost of Diabetes Test Strips

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(Victor/via Flickr)
Test strips -- the white strip in the photo above -- vary dramatically both in cash price and in insurance coverage. (Victor/via Flickr)

Since early this summer, KQED and our partners, KPCC and ClearHealthCosts.com, have been crowdsourcing the costs of common health care procedures.

If you're one of the 29 million people in America who has diabetes, we're turning now to you. We know that many people with diabetes must check their blood sugar, also called glucose, level several times a day.

For those of you who don't have diabetes, the reason for frequent checking is because in diabetes, sugar can build up in the bloodstream because the body is not able to process it. That can be dangerous. Depending on the severity of the disease, many people with diabetes must check their glucose level several times a day to make sure it is neither dangerously high nor dangerously low.

To check their blood sugar, people with diabetes have a glucose meter. Each time they test their blood, a test strip is inserted into the meter. Then they use a special needle to prick a finger and place a drop of blood on a test strip. The meter displays the result.

A single strip is not so much money, but testing day in, day out, the money adds up. In addition, like everything else in health care, different insurers cover different brands at different quantities and different co-pays or co-insurance.

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"If you rely on our [health care] system," said Amy Tenderich, founder and editor of DiabetesMine.com, a diabetes news, advocacy and community website, "it's a major thorn in your side, because you have no way of knowing what the real costs are or how anything is calculated."

Tenderich knows the issue of test strips well. She was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 2003.

Early last year, it looked like there was a glimmer of hope in the expense around test strips. Medicare instituted a competitive bidding process. That brought the price of test strips down some, but may have created a ripple effect where other private insurers are clamping down on both quantity and variety of strips they cover. (Many in the diabetes community have also sharply criticized the move because they say the lower-cost strips are often less accurate.)

Yes, you can search online and find the cash price for test strips pretty easily. But the variety can be confounding! First in quantity: boxes of 100, boxes of 50, a box of 51.

Then there's price -- two brands I found were $17.17 for 100 count; another box of 50 was $33.79.

But cash prices found online are of little help to the millions of Americans who are insured and are restricted to what their insurer covers, both in brand and in quantity. The quantity is strips-per-some-arbitrary-unit-of-time. Maybe it's strips per day or per month, or 60 days, or 90 days.

It all depends on what contracts the insurance company has made with test strip manufacturers. Remember that those contracts are sealed; You can't compare insurer to insurer.

"Every time someone moves to a new insurer," Tenderich says, "the pricing will be very different on the drugs I'm taking and the test strips as well. Nobody is going to send you a breakdown. You have no way of knowing how they're calculated."

That's where PriceCheck comes in.

If you have diabetes and you test your blood sugar regularly, please visit PriceCheck and submit what you paid and what your insurer paid. In addition, please share the specifics of your own insurance -- how many strips a day (or month) your insurer covers and exactly what your co-pay or co-insurance is on test strips. We want to know the limitations of your insurance. Since people with Type 2 diabetes may face strict restrictions on the number of strips they can use, we're also asking people to let us know if they have Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes.

Help us make health costs transparent in California -- visit PriceCheck and share your costs!