Diabetes on a Budget
Diabetes is expensive. Test strips, drugs, and food that doesn't raise your blood sugar all cost money, but for a lot of us, the money to pay for these necessities has become hard to find. If you are finding yourself in a crunch here are a few ideas that may help.
Bargain Test Strips
If you don't have insurance coverage, test strips can be obscenely expensive and the cost is getting worse every month. Still, used properly they can be the most powerful tool you have in the battle to avoid blindness, amputation, and kidney failure--all of which have been linked to blood sugars that stay above 140 mg/dl for a few hours each day.
You can often find deals on brand name strips online. Amazon features several merchants offering Test Strip Deals. From the customer feedback it appears that these are legitimate, though you may receive strips that are a few months from their expiration date. This should not make any difference in how they function.
There have been several off-brand strips offered in the past that worked with One Touch meters. At first they were a good buy, but over time their quailty deteriorated and the FDA issued warnings about them.
A much better choice for less expensive strips is the Freestyle Neo blood sugar meter and strips which can often be found priced at half what the other name brands cost. They are made by a reputable company and I find them very consistent. (These are the same strips used by the FreeStyle Libre reader to check on the sensor readings.)
Don't always assume that Amazon has them at the cheapest price. Sometimes online drug stores will mail order them to you for less.
Some people have found good test strip deals on eBay. Avoid ordering strips when it is very hot, as they may be damaged by sitting in a very hot truck.
The Relion brand meters and strips sold at Walmart are much cheaper than the name brand strips. In my experience they can read very far from lab values, and quality has become worse, not better over the years.If you are using insulin, you might want to pay a bit extra for the name brand strips .
Unfortunately, meter models change very frequently, and generic meter brands that you may see recommended online one month may be replaced by new models that are of worse quality or so expensive than they don't make a good alternative to the name brand meters. This is why I no longer recommend the drug store generic brand strips I used to recommend.
To cut down on how many strips you use, make it a policy to ask yourself, before you test, "What action will I take based on the reading I am about to see?" If you do not plan to use your test result to make a specific change in your food intake or drug dose, don't test. It is easy to get into the habit of testing and to test because you are curious, rather than because the result you see will cause you to take action.
You'll find a good discussion of the strategies you can use to get the most out of each test strip you have on in this post from the "Type 2 Diabetes, A Personal Journey" blog.
If money is really tight and you cannot afford test strips, you may be able to extract useful information from the urine test strips that measure glucose in urine. These come in packs of 50 and should not cost more than $10. You can use a scissors to cut each strip into 3 or 4 thinner strips without affecting the strip's function. How useful these strips will be for you depends on your own personal "renal threshold for glucose." This is the blood sugar level at which you start to dump glucose in your urine.
How high this level might be varies from person to person. At one extreme, there are people who will see glucose in their urine when their blood sugar is slightly over 140 mg/dl (7.7 mmol/L). At the other, there are people like me who only see glucose in their urine when their blood sugar goes over 250 mg/dl (13.8 mmol/L). Few people will fall at these extremes. Most people will spill a detectable amount of glucose in their urine when their blood sugar exceeds 160 - 180 mg/dl (8.9 - 10 mmol/l) for more than a short time. It is important to understand that it takes time for high blood sugars to translate into high glucose in urine. So a high result on a urine test strip tells you that your blood sugar was high 2 or 3 hours before.
If you have some blood sugar test strips and your money is running low, it might be a good idea to buy some urine test strips and to see if you can determine how high your renal threshold for glucose is. Test your urine with a strip two hours after you see a high value on your blood sugar meter test strip. If your threshold is not too high, you may be able to use the urine test strips to confirm that you are avoiding dangerous highs.
Many people who developed Type 1 diabetes in the 1930s and 1940s were able to maintain their long term health long term without access to reliable testing. If you use whatever strips you can afford to determine how high a set amount of carbohydrate raises your blood sugar, and scrupulously avoid eating more than the amount that pushes your blood sugar over your chosen blood sugar targets, you can preserve your health too.
Type 2 Diabetes Drugs
Though doctors are much too quick to prescribe the newest, most expensive diabetes drugs there is little evidence that these new expensive drugs are any more effective than the older drugs that are available as generics. With most pharmacies and supermarkets selling generic drugs for $4 a prescription, you can afford these effective diabetes drugs.
The best drug for most people with Type 2 diabetes is Metformin. Plain Metformin and Metformin ER, the extended release form that is easier on the stomach, are both available as generics. Some generic brands appear to be stronger than others, so if you aren't happy with the results you are getting with one brand, ask the pharmacist to try another, or if that isn't a possibility, switch your prescription to another pharmacy that dispenses a different generic brand. The pharmacist will tell you which brand they dispense if you ask.
If you do not have health insurance coverage you will find the analog insulins most doctors prescribe obscenely expensive. These include Lantus, Levemir, Tresiba, Fiasp, Humalog, Novolog and Apidra.
Fortunately there are older, insulins that are much cheaper which you can use instead. These cheap insulins are sold at Wal-mart under the Relion brand names. Relion R is shorter acting Regular Human Insulin. N is NPH, a longer acting insulin which can be used as a basal if injected several times a day, though it is more unpredictable in its action than the expensive basal insulins. (Other pharmacies may sell NPH and R but they sell them at a much higher price.)
These insulins have different activity curves than do the analogs. Read Dr. Bernstein's Diabetes Solution for complete instructions on how to figure your doses with these insulins. The R insulin works best with a lower carbohydrate intake. NPH can be made to act as a basal insulin if you use it very cautiously and understand that it does have a peak.
If you cannot make these insulins work, ask your doctor to file the paperwork to get you insulin via one of the hardship programs that help people who are insulin dependent. If he can't, call the largest regional hospital in your area and ask to speak to a social worker about how to sign up for one of these programs.
Assistance Programs, Free Clinics and Discount Card
You will find a list of drug company assistance programs with application forms, as well as a database of free clinics arranged by zip code, and a drug discount card requiring no sign-up or fees at this site:
This is a nonprofit and the drug discount card appears to be legitimate. Let me know of your experiences, good or bad with it. Use the contact link you'll find on a tab at the top of this page.
You can find other discount cards available online that can sometimes get you a cheaper price on a drug or device like a FreeStyle Libre reader and sensors or teststrips than what you would if you were paying retail. Singlecare and GoodRx offer two of these and are worth checking out.
Here is another useful resource if you are low income:
Blood Sugar-Friendly Food
If you have been eating a low(er) carb diet you may have come to rely on expensive meats and fresh vegetables and fear that it is not possible to control your blood sugar on cheaper fare. This is not true.
A crockpot is a worthwhile investment as you can use it to turn tough, cheap cuts of meat into delicious stews. Shop carefully and only buy meat on sale. You can often find good deals on meats like pork chops and roasts (pork chops have been selling for $2 a lb in my region recently.) Often the better quality meat on sale is much cheaper than hamburger or other ground meat which people think of as bargain fare. Chicken thighs and mixed parts are often on sale at very cheap prices. Even chicken breast goes on sale from time to time at $2 a lb. Fresh ground store brand sausage may also be a good, cheap, filling choice.
Frozen vegetables are as nutritious as fresh and can be bought in cheaper larger sizes.
Cheese may seems expensive when you look at the per pound cost, but you can get high quality nutrition from eating only a few ounces. Cheese, too, goes on sale from time to time and you can stock up when your favorites are on sale.
Eggs continue to be a great food bargain. Omelets or fritattas made with cheese and/or frozen veggies are low carb and very good for you.
If you live in an area with farmers' markets, look, there may be local programs that offer discounts or even free produce for people who meet certain income requirements.
You can grow your own greens in a pot from seed year round which has the advantage of assuring you that they are free of dangerous pesticides and e coli bacteria. An inexpensive LED light set up can provide you with greens grown indoors throughout the winter.