Why I Flew to Another Continent for Medicine (and How You Can Too)
I’m a freelancer who has figured out how to make enough money not to starve, but, thanks to being linked to the US healthcare system, still struggles to afford doctors appointments.
In December 2015, I spent over $1,000 on doctors appointments, blood tests, and other medical care. I didn’t even go to a hospital. Many of the blood tests were things I had been putting off due to their costs, but ultimately lead to me finding out I have some metabolism/blood sugar issues that were truly messing up my life. (More on that in this post)
The other appointments were to an optometrist and then an ophthalmologist. I started out seeing an optometrist in Puerto Rico for some dry eye issues, only to find out that optometrists in Puerto Rico are barred from writing prescriptions, even though all 50 US states allow it. Thanks, USA, for once again making life in Puerto Rico more difficult than it needs to be. (More on that nonsense here)
Thanks in part to that crazy rule, seeing an ophthalmologist in Puerto Rico generally involves a 3-month wait. At the time, I already had a flight booked to see my mom in a month, so I just made an appointment in Missouri. I saw a doctor for 5 minutes who told me the same information – I have chronic dry eye and need to be on Restasis eye drops for a minimum of 1 year. I accepted this, and had the doctor send my prescription over to my pharmacy. When I went to pick up the eye drops, I thought I would be free of my glasses and back wearing contacts in no time. Then the pharmacist told me my total.
That will be $500
I nearly choked. “Um, the prescription should be for a 30 day supply”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Ok…you must not have my insurance on file…”
“Yes, we applied it. It saved you $33.”
“So 30 days of this prescription eye drop is $533?”
“Yeah it’s pretty expensive. Most people have to go on a payment plan or join the company’s membership program. There’s no generic and it’s the only treatment for dry eye because the company has a patent.”
I politely told the pharmacist to go ahead and keep the eye drops and left the store.
Denial. Bargaining. Guilt. Anger. Depression. Acceptance/Hope.
Obviously, I hit the first stage of grief right away. I simply could not accept that a prescription eye drop that I needed to properly SEE through my EYEBALLS could cost me over $6,000 a year. Next up was bargaining. I called my insurance company and begged. I also contacted Restasis about their “membership program” that was supposed to bring the costs down to a manageable amount, only to find out that my insurance wouldn’t combine with said program. I skipped right over guilt and rocketed into anger. How could the United States allow a company to charge such insane prices for a simple eye drop? I spent a brief amount of time lingering in depression related to my country’s healthcare system before I found my version of acceptance/hope:
Stay with me here. I’m not going to tell you that travel inspired me to accept life with painfully dry eyes. My hope came from the realization that the problem was based in the United States. Who said I had to get my medication there? I immediately started researching the costs of the prescription in other countries and was both appalled and relieved to find that it was a fraction of the price in every single country I investigated. In Canada, a 30-Day supply was less than $100 (compared to $500 in the US.) In Mexico, it was only $70. In Colombia, a mere $50.
Red Eye Flight for the Dry Eye Plight
It’s incredibly cheap to buy medication in Colombia and I had always wanted to visit. Pair that with the facts that JetBlue was having a sale, and that my friends Dani and Jorge just happened to be in Colombia at the time, and the decision was easy. I paid around $400 for a flight, which is still less than a single month of the prescription in the US.
Is this drug run?
As much as I wanted to call this post “That time I made a drug run to Colombia,” I figured that A. That would get me on a even stricter “suspicious traveler” list that I am fairly sure I am already on and B. That’s some click bait nonsense.
The truth is, it’s 100% legal to buy medication in Colombia. Healthcare in the US is shady as hell, so they make you scared to work outside their system, but the reality is, as long as you aren’t buying a controlled substance (like Vicodin) or buying a suspiciously large quantity (enough to perhaps re-sell for a profit) you can absolutely buy medication in one country and bring it back into the US.
How to Buy Medication in Colombia
The first thing I did was confirm that the pharmacies in Colombia actually carried Restasis and check if they required a prescription. Thankfully, Dani was already in Colombia so she just walked into a pharmacy and asked. However, if you don’t have an awesome friend in the location, you can do what I did for Mexico – look up one of the bigger pharmacy chains (Find their version Walgreens or CVS) and check their website.
Colombia didn’t require a prescription, but I did carry my US one only because I was flying carry-on only and didn’t want to run into issues with TSA due to the liquids when I came back. If you don’t have a prescription, you can get one in Colombia. However, I can tell you right now that I have flown with the eye drops (which come in tiny daily vials in a box, not a less-conspicuous bottle) many times since then and literally no one has asked to see my prescription. Thanks, TSA, for your super helpful and universally enforced regulations!
To buy medication in Colombia, all I did was walk into a big pharmacy, Supertienda Olímpica, and ask for a 6-month supply. They only had 3 months on hand, so they sent me to another nearby pharmacy for the rest. Boom. Done. For around $300 I got a supply that would have cost me $3,000 in the United States.
I explored Colombia for 10 days, went to 4 different cities, and still did not come anywhere near $3,000 in costs.
Think about that for a minute. No really, take a second to consider that I took an awesome trip to an incredible country, bought some much-needed medication, and with my affordably clear eyes I got to see beautiful things like colonial towns draped in flowers and city walls covered in intricate street art.
A photo posted by Rease Kirchner (@indecisivetraveler) on
Almost two weeks of exploration and delicious food and I spent less than 1/3 of what I would have had to pay for just the prescription in the United States.
Guys. That shit cray.
Colombia was absolutely one of my favorite countries, so I’m almost not mad that I’ll inevitably have to buy another flight to pick up refills on my meds. However, as much as I love having an excuse to visit Colombia again, I realize that not everyone in the United States can just hop on a plane to go buy medicine in Colombia. Remember how I skipped right over the “guilt” stage before? Now I’m feeling it. I’m grateful that my freelance life gives me the flexibility to solve my prescription medication issues by buying a flight, but I feel both angry at the United States for making it so difficult, and guilty that not everyone has the luxury to do what I did. For now, all I can do is pay attention to healthcare reform initiatives, and vote for what I feel is right. I hope to someday just fly to Colombia because I want to see it, not because it’s the only way for me to afford medication.