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With Canada and Mexico borders closed, Americans are trapped in their own healthcare system

Pandemic travel restrictions have made Americans prisoners of their country. Even within North America, Canada and Mexico borders have closed thousands of miles of border to all but essential travel, roiling plans for vacation, work, and school. For cash-strapped Americans, it has also cut off access to medicines and healthcare services that they can’t afford at home — at a time when money is tighter than ever.

Stephanie Boland’s nine-year-old son was diagnosed with diabetes in December. Traveling to Canada to fill his insulin prescription took a half-day’s drive from where they live in Brainerd, Minnesota, but it was worth it — the purchase was a simple, over-the-counter affair. One pack of injection pens, which would last several months, cost less than a hundred dollars, she says, compared to a list price of $530 at home.

As their son’s disease began to rewrite the routines of daily life, the Boland’s planned to cross into Canada again to restock. Then the pandemic hit.

Boland, a masseuse, was forced to stop working. Her husband, a self-employed financial adviser, found his income hit by pandemic-related turbulence in the markets, too. Then their source for affordable insulin vanished behind a border that had never been closed before in the history of US-Canada relations.

“We were going to make a trip north, one more trip in March, but then they closed the border,” she said.

Buying insulin abroad

Only 1.5% of American adults who take prescription medications buy their drugs abroad, according to a June analysis by researchers at the University of Florida Gainesville, based on a 2015-2017 National Health Interview Survey.

But that’s still an estimated 2.3 million people.

Many medicines and medical services are cheaper in neighboring Canada and Mexico, thanks to price controls and the power of the US dollar. The difference is great enough that US insurer PEHP, which covers Utah’s state employees, offers partially paid trips to Vancouver and Tijuana “to help you save money on your prescriptions.”

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