The outbreak of COVID-19 has affected the lives of nearly every American in ways both great and small, but for Quinn Nystrom the pandemic presented dire circumstances she’d been fighting for decades to prevent in the lives of fellow diabetics.

Nystrom — the prominent diabetes advocate, former Baxter City Council member, and Democratic candidate for the Eighth Congressional District — said the outbreak erased 90% of her income as a public speaker and author. That’s a daunting figure for anyone, but Nystrom is also dependent on insulin, a daily enzymatic injection Type 1 and some Type 2 diabetics need to live, which burdens her with roughly $10,532 in out-of-pocket costs every year.

It was unsustainable, plain and simple, she said. In a matter of days, Nystrom went from managing her condition and her finances, to feeling like “the walls of my apartment were closing in,” as Nystrom would later pen in an opinion piece for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. In it, Nystrom characterized an American health care system that allows the cost of life-sustaining medication to skyrocket, while at the same time millions of Americans lose their coverage in the midst of a crippling health and economic crisis.

Quinn Nystrom poses with her husband Paul Bobich during their impromptu courthouse wedding March 20 at Itasca County Courthouse in Grand Rapids. Nystrom, a diabetic advocate and Democratic candidate for the 8th Congressional District, said she and her then-fiance decided to get married eight months early so she could take advantage of his health care plan amid the COVID-19 pandemic crisis. Photo courtesy of Quinn Nystrom
Quinn Nystrom poses with her husband Paul Bobich during their impromptu courthouse wedding March 20 at Itasca County Courthouse in Grand Rapids. Nystrom, a diabetic advocate and Democratic candidate for the 8th Congressional District, said she and her then-fiance decided to get married eight months early so she could take advantage of his health care plan amid the COVID-19 pandemic crisis. Photo courtesy of Quinn Nystrom

“Like many other Minnesotans, I spent March trying to figure out how to pay the bills. I’m a small-business owner and I lost 90% of my income with the pandemic. Health care has always been my biggest expense,” Nystrom’s piece, published Tuesday, May 12, stated. “Insulin is my oxygen; I die without it. … This increase in health care prices was the reason I decided to run for Congress. We need to fix our broken health care system and make sure no one has to make the decision between feeding their family or getting lifesaving medical care.”

Drastic times call for drastic measures, Nystrom said, which meant she — as thousands of other diabetics and health care vulnerable Americans have done before her — would have a courthouse medical marriage to take advantage of her fiance’s coverage.

And so, while the state was shutting down all but its most essential services on March 20, Nystrom and her fiance raced to find an open courthouse in a 120-mile radius. Ultimately, the Itasca County Courthouse in Grand Rapids served as her wedding venue, christening the union eight months before their intended date.

It’s difficult to pin down just how the coronavirus is affecting diabetics and other Americans dependent on life-sustaining medication, Nystrom said during her interview with the Dispatch Thursday, May 14, but judging by the overwhelming response her campaign has received from all over the United States, it paints a bleak picture.

“I get a lot of phone calls, Facebook messages, Instagram, Twitter messages, you know, from people who are desperate to get insulin. And those messages and random phone calls from complete strangers — those have exponentially increased in this pandemic,” Nystrom said. “People are either losing their health insurance or their income has been lost because of unemployment, or they have to stay home and so sick pay has been cut — they can't afford their insulin.”

Taking that anecdotal evidence, Nystrom said, and juxtapositioning it on a national scale — the University of Minnesota projects upwards of 18.4 million Americans have lost their coverage amid COVID-19 — it shows long-standing issues of dysfunctional health care, corporate greed and congressional ineptitude on Capitol Hill are spiraling out of control.

Nystrom has been critical of her opponent, Congressman Pete Stauber, R-Duluth, noting while the first-term representative pushed to have an amendment added to reduce insulin costs, he ultimately voted against the H.R. 3 bill that included his amendment. Nystrom has characterized Stauber’s decision as political gamesmanship, while Stauber has said he was trying to do the right thing.

“If he really wanted to lower the cost of insulin, why didn't he vote for H.R. 3?” Nystrom said. “His insulin amendment was an amendment for H.R. 3 and then he didn't vote for H.R. 3. If he really wanted to lower prescription drug costs, why wouldn't you vote in favor of the lower prescription drug bill?”

Nystrom also lambasted Stauber for what she perceives as a lack of personal accountability by the congressman. She stated Stauber dodged questions by the Dispatch for a May 4 article in which he wouldn’t address questions pertaining to different provisions of the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, but decided to promote the Paycheck Protection Program repeatedly.

“We need a congressperson who is going to answer all the questions,” Nystrom said, “Because this district deserves that. We are in a crisis. … We need somebody who can be a leader for us.”

In terms of her own politics, Nystrom described herself as a pragmatic incrementalist. Health care reform was a central issue this election cycle before the coronavirus outbreak accelerated it, while different solutions — such as increased privatization, implementing a public option or a Medicare for All overhaul — have garnered serious debate.

Nystrom said she’s in favor of pushing what she can achieve from the onset, which includes smaller individual pieces of legislation to curb corporate power in health care and building off improvements provided by Obamacare.

“I think a very moderate approach, with looking at how do we fix our health care system, because I think that's going to be our best approach with getting meaningful legislation passed,” Nystrom said. “I would look at making those incremental steps right away for improvement.”



GABRIEL LAGARDE may be reached at gabe.lagarde@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5859. Follow at www.twitter.com/glbrddispatch.