Why Do Test Strips Cost So Much? (Part 2)

Last week I was busy being blown away by the amazing technology of glucose test strips. But back to reality. Why do these things cost so much? Why do prices vary by 600% or more?

From what I can tell on Consumer Reports, customer reviews, articles like this one in Diabetes Forecast, and comments on diabetes blogs, it seems like most meters and strips have pretty similar quality. So how do you choose?

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Meters have a variety of features. Some have backlights, which is nice in the dark. Some speak to you, which helps people with poor vision. Some can store more results in memory. Some hook to your computer or smart phone with a cable to upload results; others connect with wireless; others don’t have that function. Some create graphs for you of various types.

Meters are temperature sensitive. Some can function at higher temperatures; others can work at lower temperatures. Some burn through batteries faster than others. Some seem to need a little more blood than others to get a reading.

Diabetes Forecast says meters are so similar that some people just buy the cheapest one, and it works for them. But most meters are cheap. The cost comes in the strips. So the best meter might be the one with the most affordable strips.

When it comes to strip cost, the mega-retailers like Walmart, Walgreens, and Kroger have an advantage. And the quality seems comparable. One user commented that

Strips for [Walmart Prime] run $9.00 per fifty, a $60 cost reduction from my Accu-Chek strips which are $69 at Costco. On a typical reading of 180 the meters will be maybe two points different. Pretty darn close.

But that cost advantage only holds if you don’t have insurance. A lot of insurers will pay for Accu-Chek, OneTouch, or some more expensive strips, but won’t pay for a Walmart Prime or Walgreens Truetest. You’ll have to ask what your insurer pays for before you buy.

Even with an accepted brand, some insurers have started limiting the strips they’ll pay for. You might need to get your doctor to increase the number of strips he prescribes if you want insurance to pay for the strips. How often you should monitor is a complicated individual question, as you can tell by reading the comments I got on this piece.

Without insurance, you might need to go with the cheaper brands. But be aware that when it comes to strips other than their house brand, even Walmart charges more for strips than some online dealers. According to their Web sites, affordablediabetes.com charges $33 for 50 OneTouch Ultra strips, while Walmart charges $28 for only 25 strips.

Remember that no strip or meter is foolproof. Our reader John C says “You could actually line up four meters at a time and take a reading [from the same stick] and get four different readings.”

So I would say find a meter and strips you can trust. Stick with them, but have another brand of meter available to check if numbers “don’t seem right.”

  • JohnC

    I have found if you don’t have access to a second meter and you don’t believe your reading, take the test again with the same meter — most of the time the mistake is the meter or strip on the first test only. If you get a totally different reading you know something is not correct.

    My strips are partly paid for by a medical plan. I use more than allowed. My workaround is to purchase strips separately and make sure they are not included in ‘covered’ strips… yeah look for inexpensive ones!

    Of course the main reason for using the meter in the first place is to try and get your blood sugar as close to a normal person as possible (around 90 before meals – less than 140 after eating). The reason is simple. People with normal readings don’t suffer any of the conditions that apply to diabetics. The goal is to try and get to the narrowest range that is possible. And yes (as proven) once you get to a normal range the damage done gradually disappears. There is a real possibility that your health care professional is giving you some wrong information! Take a careful look at info available.

    In spite of really getting ‘tired’ (the nice word) of arranging your life around needle pricks, etc., it is one disease you can control and have a reasonably predictable outcome. I’ll bet David can appreciate that a lot.

  • Kristen

    I get a blood screen twice a year which includes a fasting glucose test. I take my meter with me and test my blood ASAP after the lab tech takes my blood. There’s maybe a 3 minute time difference. Then when I get the test results from the lab, I compare with the reading my meter gave me to make sure they are close. I had read a suggestion to do this and it does give me something to compare my meter results with.

    My insurance only allows 1 strip per day now so some days I don’t test and save up strips for times I need more testing. I think from what I just read that I will start buying the less expensive Walmart brand, check them against my current meter and then if they are accurate, test more frequently.

  • Tom W

    Folks, what you all need to realize about glucose meters and their test strips is that the standard for all of them is +/-20% of reading. They are simply not very accurate.

    So if you don’t get the same reading, that is likely the reason. Many of the diabetics I know will run two or three tests at the same time, then average them. Obviously, that gets really expensive with strips like One Touch at over $1 a piece (but Johnson and Johnson loves that!). Even with insurance co-pays, you may want to investigate the cheaper meters and test strips that can be found online at Amazon, Walmart, and other stores like that.

  • Mitch

    Walmart’s Relion strips cost $9 for 50, or 18 cents per strip. See http://www.walmart.com/ip/ReliOn-Prime-Blood-Glucose-Test-Strips-50ct/20752265

    To answer the question, “Why Do Test Strips Cost So Much?” — the answer is clearly because the major manufacturers are charging what the market will bear because most consumers with insurance never see the true price of test strips.

    For test strip costs to decline, consumers need to know the real costs — meaning the cost they are paying in their insurance premiums or their employer is paying. Consumers also need to speak out against “rebate” programs used by 3rd-party pharmacy benefit managers that obscure costs and reduce competition.

  • lisa

    I am an RN who spent a lot of my career taking care of patients with diabetic complications. The work that I do now has to do with collecting healthcare quality data for a national database. With the strong focus on preventing unnecessary complications leading to unnecessary hospitalizations, I have been asking myself why it costs so much to monitor my blood glucose. You would think that there would be an incentive to diabetic patients to monitor their blood glucose so that they can recognize the important impact that diet and exercise have on blood glucose readings. Insead we have to ration our strips. Complications for renal disease, eye disease, cardiac disease, vascular disease and rampant infections can be minimized by good glucose control. Think of the savings to medicare and medicaid that could be achieved, not to mention the most important factor, quality of life! I am also a type 2 diabetic and have lowered my A1c from 13.9 to 5.2 in less than 8 months by carefully monitoring my BGs and recognizing what works for me. Come on CMS & insurance companies, you are missing major cost savings by not encouraging patients with what they need to take care of themselves. The strip manufacturers should be taken to task. If they sold more strips at a lower cost they would still make a fortune, and we could all take better care of ourselves. It would be a win win win.

  • Dean Clark

    My question is why do we need test strips at all? Why don’t we have a machine that does not rely on strips or uses a alternative that is cheaper than the current systems we have today.