Manitobans laid off during pandemic struggle to afford costly diabetes medication

Some Manitobans laid off amid COVID-19 restrictions say they're struggling to afford life-saving diabetes medication as the health benefits through their former work plans run out.

'Can I pay for food this week or do I pay for my son's insulin,' says Frances Matlock, mom of 2

Frances Matlock, second from left, her fiancé Greg Hal, left, and her son Zach, right, pose with Santa Claus in pre-pandemic times. The family recently lost health benefit coverage and is struggling to afford medication for Zach, 9, Matlock says. (Submitted by Fran Matlock)

Some Manitobans laid off amid COVID-19 restrictions say they're struggling to afford life-saving diabetes medication as the health benefits through their former work plans run out.

Frances Matlock is one of many Manitobans to lose a job during provincewide restrictions that closed a range of businesses.

The mother of two, one of them a two-month old baby, usually works three jobs. She is now down to one. 

She was laid off from a part-time job during widespread closures in March, and it happened to be the one with a health-care plan that covered her nine-year-old son's diabetes needs. Those benefits ran out last month.

"I went to the pharmacy and ended up with one heck of a sticker shock," said Matlock — the pharmacist told her it would be $390 for insulin and supplies that day.

"I had to walk around the grocery store and put all my groceries back in order to be able to afford that, which made it significantly difficult in that moment, because I almost cried in the middle of a store during a pandemic."

Anxieties in diabetes community

Diabetes Canada conducted a survey in June that suggests Matlock's anxieties about being able to afford medication are common right now.

The executive director of federal affairs for Diabetes Canada said it can cost up to $15,000 per year out of pocket for those with diabetes who don't have insurance coverage.

"A significant number of Canadians with diabetes report that it is even more of a struggle than normal to afford their diabetes [needs]," Kim Hanson said in a statement.

'I feel … hopeless'

Louise Serpa is afraid she, too, won't be able to afford her five-year-old son's diabetes needs. 

"I've lost my job. I'm not really sure how to deal with this. I'm a single mom and what am I supposed to do?" the mother of two said.

Louise Serpa, left, says she is bracing for high bills for diabetes medication for her son after she was laid off last month. Her work health plan expires in February. (Submitted by Louise Serpa)

Her previous work health plan runs out 90 days from when she was laid off last month. After that, if she hasn't landed another job with benefits, she fears she'll have to pay hundreds of dollars a month.

Serpa's son's continuous glucose monitor (CGM) costs more than $3,000 a year, and insulin costs another couple hundred dollars a month.

She asked the health insurance service provider from her previous work plan what it would cost to get something similar as a single payer. The work plan cost her about $70 a month and covered all expenses, but there was no equivalent plan available for a single payer.

It would cost more than $400 a month for a "subpar" plan that would require another medical evaluation of her son and cover $1,000 total in medication and equipment a year, she said.

"I feel almost lost and a little hopeless. How are we going to make this work?" she said. "What can I do if I'm unemployed and I need this medication for him?"

Serpa said she has been waiting five weeks to hear back from Pharmacare about her deductible.

Pharmacare is based on income, and for the 2020-21 fiscal year, an applicant's 2018 income tax notice is used to determine their deductible category.

If your 2020 income is expected to drop more than 10 per cent from what you made in 2018, you can request your deductible be reduced, a provincial spokesperson said.

Serpa is bracing for high bills early next year.

Selling old toys to get by

Matlock is seeing those bills stack up already.

Matlock's seasonal job fell through this summer because it was dependent on large events that were no longer permitted.

She still has a full-time job that she loves, but it's not enough to cover the essentials and diabetes medication. Her husband is also battling cancer and off work.

Matlock said when she called Pharmacare to find out what her options were, she was told her deductible was $3,500. It could take her up to six months to hit that mark.

"It's become a bit of a struggle," she said.

Matlock says it's become a struggle to financially support her family — fiancé Greg Gall, left, baby Selina and son Zach — now that she has to pay for diabetes medication. (Submitted by Fran Matlock)

Her baby was born just two months ago, yet Matlock is already back at work out of necessity.

In order to scrounge together a little extra money for essentials, she also began selling things from around the house — old DVDs and toys mostly. That's helped supplement her income, but diapers for her baby and medication for her son aren't cheap.

"I have to think, 'Can I pay for food this week or do I pay for my son's insulin this week?'"

She wants the province to give those with diabetes experiencing financial struggles right now access to cheaper or free supplies and medication.

"I am really hoping honestly that our politicians see this and finally start understanding the financial hardship."


Bryce Hoye


Bryce Hoye is a multi-platform Manitoba journalist covering news, science, justice, health, 2SLGBTQ issues and other community stories. He has a background in wildlife biology and occasionally works for CBC's Quirks & Quarks and Front Burner. He won a national Radio Television Digital News Association award for a 2017 feature on the history of the fur trade. He is also Prairie rep for outCBC.