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A question from a listener in Tallahassee, Fla., inspired this next story. He wanted to know about the signs he'd seen around town. They offered cash not for old furniture or jewelry, but for certain a medical supply. Rhaina Cohen of NPR's Planet Money team unraveled the mystery behind the ads.
RHAINA COHEN, BYLINE: Chelsea Arnold was getting into debt over tiny pieces of plastic - diabetic test strips. Chelsea had just been diagnosed with diabetes, and now she needed to test her blood sugar 10 times a day. So she went to Wal-Mart. One box of test strips was $80.
CHELSEA ARNOLD: And that's a five-day supply. I called my parents, you know, and I was like, I don't know what to do 'cause I don't have that kind of money.
COHEN: So she typed a few words into Google.
ARNOLD: Cheap test strips (laughter) - and Craigslist came up.
COHEN: She bought eight boxes for less than a hundred dollars. Those would have cost $640 at Wal-Mart.
ARNOLD: It was, like, you know, having a life sentence, and then realizing that there's a cure.
COHEN: Chelsea stumbled into this underground economy for diabetic supplies. It's hard to know where the test strips come from. Some were probably sold by diabetics who were desperate for cash. Many of them, though, come from people who have insurance and have extra test strips - people like Trey, who doesn't want his last name used. He doesn't think he broke any laws, but Trey's afraid of retribution from his insurance company. When Trey moved to a different type of monitoring system, he ended up with 20 boxes of extra test strips.
TREY: Started doing some research. You know, obviously number one - is it legal to be able to sell test strips? But it turns out that that you can sell - it's kind of a gray market - as long as you don't get them for Medicare and Medicaid.
COHEN: Trey's right. It's illegal to sell test strips you get for Medicare or Medicaid, but otherwise, it's kind of gray area. So Trey found a local guy on Craigslist. It starts to look a little seedy here. He put the 20 boxes into a brown paper lunch bag.
TREY: When I went to sell the test strips, we met in a McDonald's parking lot. I came out with the bag full of test strips, and he had his wallet full of money. And it was like we were doing a geriatric drug deal in the McDonald's parking lot to get rid of some test strips.
COHEN: Trey made $300 off that geriatric drug deal.
TREY: It's like blood money, you know, technically, with the test strips.
COHEN: Blood money - Trey used it to buy Christmas presents for his kids. His test strips went on to the next stop, a buyer, someone like Christa Kral, who started a website with her cousin.
CHRISTA KRAL: Sellusdiabeticteststrips.com.
COHEN: Christa used to post flyers near the train station. Now all of her ads are online. She also thinks she brings in customers with the company's unusual tagline.
KRAL: Two moms will buy your tests strips.
COHEN: I'm in Christa's dining room, which is also the headquarters of her business. She has a cardboard box with about 20 boxes of test strips inside. Each is about the size of a box of Band-Aids, and she pays quite a bit for each of these.
KRAL: Maybe $50 a box.
COHEN: Then she sells them at a mark-up to the next part of this chain, to people like Chelsea, the woman who bought test trips off Craigslist because they were too expensive at Wal-Mart. That time when Chelsea couldn't afford her test strips and keep her blood sugar in check - it scared her, and it made her decide to change her career path. She had been planning to go to medical school.
ARNOLD: That's what really made me think I shouldn't be a doctor, and I should go and help people try to afford the test strips.
COHEN: She started a website, glucomart.com, a place where people could buy affordable test strips. She turned her garage into a kind of pharmacy.
ARNOLD: The floor is epoxied, and I have the pharmacy shelving.
COHEN: Chelsea realizes that if manufacturers or insurance companies lower the price of test strips, she could be put out of business. She's actually OK with that.
ARNOLD: Really the business exists to help people get the test strips they need.
COHEN: And she'd be happy to go back to her original plan and trade in her pharmacy shelves for a doctor's coat. Rhaina Cohen, NPR News.
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