Cash for test strips: diabetics putting their health at risk

BALTIMORE - Nearly 26 million Americans are living with diabetes. Those with type-2 diabetes depend on test strips to keep them healthy.

But test strips aren't cheap, and now a growing re-sell market has emerged. The fear is that some people may be putting their health at risk just to earn or save a little cash.

For a type-2 diabetic like Deb Holden, one tiny test strip could mean the difference between life and death.

"It is a true lifeline, a test strip is a lifeline for a diabetic," she said.

Holden uses the strips to test her blood glucose level twice a day. They're invaluable tools that help her manage the disease.

"Even though you feel okay, your body is working constantly and it's doing things that you have no clue," she said.

Holden is one of the 230,000 living with diabetes in the greater Baltimore area. One company is trying to catch their attention by posting bright yellow signs advertising "Cash for Diabetic Test Strips" in and around the city.  

"When I saw the signs, I was like, 'Why are people buying people's test strips when they need them?'" Holden asked.

The short answer is because they're expensive goods. The strips can cost anywhere from 40 cents to as much as $2 each. Those costs have spawned a growing "gray" market, particularly online, where people are buying and selling test strips on eBay and Craigslist and through websites created specifically to buy the strips from people.

"It is a huge problem when someone is trading their health essentially, for some quick cash. They can pay a heavy price for that," said Kathy Rogers, executive director of the American Diabetes Association in Maryland .

Rogers said these companies are targeting people in the most vulnerable communities.

"Here's a person who might be having trouble paying their rent, and they see a sign, 'Cash for test strips.' It's awfully appealing on the surface, to say, 'hmm, you know, I'll sell my test strips, I just won't manage my diabetes, and I'll get some cash and I can get by," she said.

Though most insurance companies will cover all or part of the cost of the strips if you have a prescription, you don't need a prescription to buy them yourself. Many of the companies buying the strips say they are performing a service to people without insurance, by re-selling the products for much less than they're priced in stores.

Food and Drug Administration spokeswoman Jennifer Haliski said the practice is "technically legal." But in a statement, she wrote that the agency advises against it:

"While it is technically legal to buy and sell blood glucose test strips from consumers under certain conditions, FDA does not encourage this practice due to concerns about the safety and efficacy of test. It may be dangerous to consumers to use test strips that were not handled and stored correctly. For example, test strips need to be stored at certain temperatures and in relatively dry conditions to test blood glucose levels properly.  In addition, as vials that have been opened an used by another individual may have trace amounts of blood on the vial, opened vials may pose an infection risk."

"If there is evidence that the test strips are misbranded or adulterated (e.g., if they have been stored incorrectly), then reselling them is not legal and FDA may take enforcement action. For example, it is illegal to re-sell expired test strips, and FDA has initiated criminal proceedings in the past for this practice."

"These strips are highly sensitive, so let's say, innocently this person is storing these strips in extremely high temperatures or extremely cold temperatures, well all of a sudden, those strips aren't accurate anymore," Rogers said. "Then, there's just purely counterfeit strips."

The strips also have expiration dates consumers need to check.

Holden said there should be government regulation of these companies buying and re-selling test strips. As someone who lost her mother to diabetes-related complications, she's saddened to see people gambling with their lives.

"People will sell anything when they are destitute and they think they need it," she said. "So people will take advantage of that and put a price tag on it."

ABC2News called the number on the signs around Baltimore several times to reach out to the company about their business model. Our messages were never returned.

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