For years, Jake and Marqui Balle of Clinton, Utah, had budgeted carefully and avoided splurges so they could afford lifesaving insulin for their diabetic son, Reid, at a cost of $550 a month — their second-highest expense after their mortgage.
“It’s a major cost, but it comes first for us because without it, our son would die,” said Jake Balle, 33, who works as a real estate agent. “It’s heart-wrenching to know there are families out there who can’t even afford the insurance deductible.”
Now some of the financial burden for the Balles and several other Utah families will be eased because of a couple who decided to use their extra airline miles to make trips to Mexico to buy low-cost insulin for strangers, saving them thousands of dollars.
In December 2018, Balle had mentioned the high cost of Reid’s insulin pens to Eric Threlkeld, 31, a technical engineer who had hired Balle as his real estate agent when he bought a new home. Threlkeld travels frequently for his job and was helping to build a factory for a bagged salad company in Mexico at the time.
Threlkeld was shocked to learn what the Balles paid each month for the pens — small vials of insulin that can be injected directly without a syringe. (Reid’s dosages are transferred to his insulin pump.)
Knowing that prescription drugs were much cheaper in Mexico, Threlkeld offered to pick up several insulin pens at a pharmacy for Reid during his next trip and bring them back in an insulated lunchbox, provided he could find the same brand Reid used, NovoLog.
Threlkeld found the NovoLog brand with the same packaging and paid about a tenth of the cost.
“He came home with six or seven and paid only $13 each for them,” Balle said. “Here, they would have cost about $110 each, and our son uses five a month. Besides being extremely grateful, we were stunned at how much cheaper it was.”
In January, Threlkeld offered to make another trip to buy insulin for Reid. This time, he took along his wife, Erica, and used his airline miles to pay for their flights on his days off.
“We bought 36 insulin pens for about $16 each, and when I gave them to Jake, he said he wanted to share them with some other families,” Threlkeld said. “That’s when we found out how great the need was out there. Erica and I decided then to help do something about it.”
The Threlkelds recently started a nonprofit, Medic(a)tion Found(a)tion, to help people who have been affected by skyrocketing prescription medication costs. With studies showing that the cost of insulin nearly doubled from 2012 to 2016 and now averages nearly $6,000 a year for Type 1 diabetics, the couple decided to donate their airline miles to the cause. And they’re encouraging others to do the same.
“Not everyone is in a financial situation to contribute money, but maybe they have airline miles they aren’t using, or they have some free time to make a trip over the border to buy insulin for families in need,” said Erica Threlkeld, 35, who stays home with her children and also runs a mobile spray-tanning service.
The ultimate goal of the foundation, she said, is to have volunteers make trips to Mexico to load up on affordable insulin and other medications at least every other month.
“People are desperate for insulin at a low cost — there are horror stories about people dangerously reducing the amount they use to save money or having to decide between insulin and paying the mortgage,” she said. “Making a quick trip to Mexico every few months is a simple thing that we can do, and I’m happy to do it.”
On their last trip, the Threlkelds used their airline miles to fly to Phoenix, rented a car and drove 2½ hours to the border town of Yuma, Ariz., then seven miles south to one of several pharmacies in Los Algodones, Mexico. The town is popular with Americans looking for discounted prescriptions and eyeglasses, along with cheaper medical and dental care.
“We went up and back in one day and didn’t even need a motel,” said Eric Threlkeld. “It was amazing to spend $620 on insulin that would have cost more than $4,000 back home.”
There are no safety drawbacks to buying insulin pens in Mexico, he said, as long as they are kept below 46 degrees in a portable cooler during the flight back to the United States.
“We brought back the same brand for Reid that he was using at home,” he said. “The only difference is the cost.”
Threlkeld said he feels grateful that he and his wife don’t need to buy insulin for any of their five children.
“People in our country are being held hostage over the high price of insulin and other medications,” he said. “If nothing else, we’re hoping that by starting the foundation, we’ll be bringing some awareness for change.”
On their next trip across the border this spring, the Threlkelds plan to pick up some steroid inhalers for Sara Hancock of Lehi, Utah, in addition to insulin for several families.
Hancock’s 11-year-old son, Caron, has a rare airway condition called bronchomalacia that requires him to use an inhaler that costs $125 per month. In Mexico, she’s hopeful the Threlkelds can buy several months’ worth of inhalers for a fraction of that price.
“We have a lot of medical bills that require us to play the medical lottery each month to decide who gets how much,” said Hancock, 34, who works part time as an airline reservations clerk. “Our system needs to change, but until it does, I’m so thankful for Eric and Erica. It’s awesome that they’re doing this. They’re kind and genuine people who really seem to care.”
For Jake Balle, the couple’s trips to the border will help his family save thousands of dollars a year.
“We have a $6,000 deductible, and every penny until now has gone toward insulin,” said Balle. “Eric and Erica have found a real need and will now be going out of their way to ease the pain for lots of families.”
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