ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. – They’re signs that pop. Bright yellow with red text catching the eye of drivers and pedestrians at busy intersections: “Cash for Diabetic Strips.”
The buying and selling of medical supplies for people with diabetes has been described as an underground market.
Yvonne Johnson’s insurance covers a big chunk of her diabetic test strips.
“It’s so expensive for the people who don’t have insurance,” Johnson said. “Each order they send me, it’s about $20.”
Johnson has type 2 diabetes and checks her blood sugar multiple times a week using diabetic test strips, which are tiny tabs that diabetics depend on to test their blood sugar level.
“I wouldn’t dare sell them,” Johnson said.
The signs offer cash for the diabetic strips and include a 314 area code. The number is an internet phone number that forwards incoming calls to someone’s legit number.
The FOX Files called the number and a man by the name of Rodney answered. He claimed to be the middleman buyer and wanted to know the brand, quantity, and expiration date.
Rodney said he ships them off to his wholesaler and the unused strips are put back on the market.
“It doesn’t sound right to me,” Dennis Brock, who has many family members with diabetes, said.
It’s mostly legal to sell unused diabetic strips unless they come from a government program like Medicare, according to the Missouri Department of Social Services.
“I think it’s kind of crazy that people would be selling their diabetic strips. They really need to make sure their blood levels are correct,” Brock said.
The Missouri Department of Health and Social Services reports that a person is nearly twice as likely to have diabetes if their household makes less than $25,000 a year.
The signs spotted in North County are in and around the Wellston area, a community of nearly 1,900 residents, mostly African Americans, with 34% living below the poverty line. The median household income is $33,625, according to the State of Missouri.
“It’s obvious they’re targeting Black people—that maybe, hopefully, they can find someone who needs some money or something and that’s the whole reason why they’re probably doing it,” Brock said.
Affinia Healthcare Chief Medical Officer Dr. Melissa Tepe said her colleagues have seen the street signs and said it could be dangerous to buy from someone off the street.
“You never know what people might tamper with,” Tepe said. “It seems like they are targeting community members and patients that have lower incomes and possibly in the need for cash.”
Test strips needed for diabetic patients can be expensive, especially if you’re underinsured or uninsured and forced to pay out of pocket. A box of 100 strips could cost between $50 and $100.
Tepe said that while it’s costly, it’s a critical tool for diabetics to stay alive.
“They are needed, so you have empowerment and are educated on what your blood sugar is and how much medication to use,” he said.
Tepe said research and investigation are needed to determine the who, what, and why behind the diabetic strip market.
“To figure out if it is exploitive right and if there needs to be policies or laws in place to prevent this, or make it safe,” he said.
For people with diabetes, like Johnson, diabetes is not a cash deal. It’s a lifestyle to survive. She’s taken notice of where the signs are posted in a community where 93% are African American.
“I’m concerned about it and I think it should be investigated by the government, or somebody should investigate them and see what’s going on,” Johnson said.
Brock thinks the same.
“They need to be investigated because that’s like hustling people with their health and stuff—it’s not good,” Brock said.
After FOX 2’s investigation began, Rodney’s phone number is no longer active, but the signs are still up.
If you’re diabetic and facing financial hardship, Affinia Healthcare may be able to help you with supplies. Call 314-814-8700 to reach the clinic and inquire about assistance.