Bernie Sanders Goes the Extra Mile to Make His Point About Drug Prices

WINDSOR, Ontario — Bernie Sanders wanted to make a point about a crippling injustice. So he crossed the border.

Well, the northern one.

On Sunday, he took about a dozen people with diabetes on a bus from Detroit to Windsor to get insulin at a Canadian pharmacy, just minutes from the border. Because of traffic, and multiple stops along the way, it took an hour and 17 minutes to get there and about the same time to get back.

But the duration and the mileage were not really the main points. Mr. Sanders’s goal was to underscore how much the skyrocketing cost of prescription drugs is hurting Americans, a view even President Trump shares. By buying insulin in Canada, everyone had saved a lot of money. A vial that one woman said could set her back $340 in the United States had cost her about a tenth of that.

If the trip was something of a stunt — there were more reporters than patients — it was also in line with what has long been one of Mr. Sanders’s signature issues. So long, in fact, that the trip was a reprise of one he made in 1999 with a group of women who had breast cancer. That time he traveled from Vermont, his home state, to Montreal.

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Mr. Sanders still talks about that trip on the campaign trail, using it to illustrate what he calls deep flaws in the health care system in the United States.

His stump-speech anecdote now has an update. Here is what happened:

“Good morning,” Mr. Sanders says. The reporters and cameramen accompanying him on the trip eagerly wait at the front of the bus for him to say more. No more comes. He promptly heads to the back of the bus, where the people with diabetes are waiting for him.

One of them is Quinn Nystrom, 33, of Baxter, Minn. A Type 1 diabetic, she said this would be her third trip to Canada to buy insulin.

“Regardless of what you think about Senator Sanders’s politics, this is the single biggest thing that has happened to the insulin affordability crisis,” she said before the bus departed. Ms. Nystrom, who defined herself as a “conservative Democrat,” said she had not endorsed any presidential candidate but appreciated that Mr. Sanders had embraced this issue.

“We’ve never had this type of media coverage,” she said.

At 10:10 a.m., the bus rolls out of the parking lot in Detroit. A bag of snacks falls out of an overhead bin, prompting momentary panic from some reporters.

A United States Customs and Border Protection officer steps onto the bus and jokes about the well-functioning air-conditioning on a hot, humid day. The mood is very relaxed.

Mr. Sanders has been holding court in the back of the bus, talking to patients. Not content to sit so far away from him, the journalists edge closer. The Vermont senator mostly asks the patients questions but also takes some time to rail against pharmaceutical companies, which he says are making “huge profits.”

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“You are likely talking about corruption and price fixing,” he says. “You’re talking about collusion.”

“This is an insane, unacceptable situation, and it has got to change,” he says as the bus crosses the Detroit River.

He takes one question from a reporter, about states importing drugs from Canada.

”At the end of the day, nobody in this room thinks this is the solution,” he says, gesturing toward a patient. “You should not have to be going to another country for this young lady to get the medicine that she needs. We should be doing what the Canadians do.”

It is validation for America’s neighbor to the north.

“Are we here yet?”

There was a long line of cars and trucks waiting to cross the border, but the insulin caravan finally arrives. Everyone disembarks to show their passports. When Mr. Sanders took the group of women to Canada 20 years ago, crossing the border took almost no time at all, Kathleen Keenan, 79, who went with Mr. Sanders then, said in a phone interview last week.

“It was very easy going over the border in those days,” she said. “It was a matter of five minutes at the most.”

She remembered the trip fondly.

“I thought the trip went very smoothly,” she said. “We all had a chance to talk to him.”

A crowd of Canadians greets the bus as it arrives at the old-fashioned pharmacy, which is minutes from the border. Someone is playing the accordion.

Mr. Sanders enters the pharmacy to stand beside Ms. Nystrom as she orders insulin. He mentions that diabetics sometimes must ration their insulin because they cannot afford to take it as prescribed: “The time is long overdue for the American people, for the Congress, to say, ‘Enough is enough. We’re tired of being ripped off by a very, very greedy and corrupt industry.’”

The first group of reporters is then shepherded out of the pharmacy to allow another group of reporters in.

The crowd goes crazy. A young girl holds a Bernie doll. A man wears a hat that says, “Canada already great, eh!”

Mr. Sanders speaks for about four minutes outside the pharmacy, and then hands the microphone to some people who traveled on the bus with him.

One woman, Kathy Sego, of Madison, Ind., speaks about her son, Hunter, 22, who began rationing insulin when he was in college. Insulin was so expensive, she said, that her family would sometimes make the choice between paying for the drug and paying for electricity.

“He felt that he was a burden to us,” she said. “So my son decided that he was going to start rationing his insulin.”

At 12:20 p.m., Mr. Sanders takes a second (and final) question from the news media, about what he could do as president to lower the cost of pharmaceutical drugs. He ticks off a number of things he would try to do, including using antitrust laws to break up monopolies and jailing pharmaceutical executives.

“What you do is you throw these people in jail if they engage in price fixing,” he says.

And with that, Mr. Sanders wraps it up. He shakes some hands and poses for a picture, and then boards the bus to head back to the United States.

His aides inform reporters that the rest of the trip is off the record. The bus arrives back on United States soil at 1:41 p.m.

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