MMA fighter Anna Hyvärinen joins the fight for T1D civil rights and affordable insulin

  All photos: Jenny Queiroz

All photos: Jenny Queiroz

We are very pleased to welcome MMA fighter Anna Hyvärinen as the first brand ambassador for the Type 1 Diabetes Defense Foundation. Anna will be wearing T1DF’s logo on her jiu jitsu Gi and MMA fight gear in competitions coming up this summer and beyond. 

The Type 1 Diabetes Defense Foundation is the only U.S. nonprofit dedicated to the rights of people with type 1 and insulin-dependent diabetes. T1DF and its president Julia Boss (individually) are currently plaintiffs in several drug pricing lawsuits we initiated in early 2017, including Boss v. CVS (insulin pricing), now consolidated into In re Insulin Pricing Litigation (Case 3:17-cv-00699-BRM-LHG).

As a small advocacy 501(c)(3) that’s spent the past year fighting hard in a David-and-Goliath struggle on insulin, glucagon, and test strip pricing—pitting us against some of the largest corporations and class action law firms in the United States—T1DF is especially proud to see our blue diabetes justice logo on the powerful forearms and shoulders of 5’4” flyweight/strawweight Anna Hyvärinen. We're inspired watching Anna compete in jiu jitsu open classes, where she will often be matched against a taller or heavier opponent. But Anna always points her fans back to MMA, where same-sized opponents compete based on sheer technical skill, fitness, and determination to win.

“The beauty of jiu jitsu is that it was made for a smaller person to be able to beat a bigger opponent,” Anna says. “It is about playing with leverage, technique and strategy.
“In MMA, sometimes you will meet your match, someone who is as good as you, as strong as you. What matters then is who is more mentally tough and who has the strongest will to win.

Anna has the fighting spirit T1DF strives for—we admire her grit, her resilience, and her constant focus on developing her technical skills. To get fights as a challenger, she has to be competitive. That means fighting hard and training harder. Period. T1DF shares the same commitment to technical excellence and hard work. We know that when challenging powerful entrenched interests—pharmacy benefit managers, insurance companies, state drug prescription programs, drug manufacturers—good intentions are not enough. That’s why we recruit hard-hitting legal counsel and arm them with the industry knowledge they need to succeed. Like Anna, we have to hone our skills, learn from every fight, and persevere. 

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Who is Anna Hyvärinen?

Anna is a 30-year-old specialist in MMA, jiu jitsu, and wrestling, originally from Finland. She was diagnosed with type 1 in 1999 at age 11, got excited about martial arts ten years later and has since competed in professional MMA fights in Australia and Panama. She is now U.S.-based and trains with the American Top Team in Florida. Anna works out 13 to 16 hours a week, putting in more hours in the “Camp” weeks that lead up to a match—working on skills in a range of martial arts (“jiu jitsu, judo, wrestling, boxing, kickboxing, other striking arts, sparring”) plus strength training, mental preparation, and recovery. In recent weeks, she's been recovering from knee surgery, and she is looking forward to her return to serious training and competition.

Anna says learning from early T1D management to be “very disciplined” with her health made the transition to serious athletic training easier. Aside from bumping up her insulin to offset rising blood sugars during high-intensity training, Anna says diabetes has never been a practical issue for her as an athlete. She even manages her T1D through all those workouts without a pump or CGM, figuring the rigors of her training would destroy any currently available tech: “they would never stay intact longer than a day, if even that.”

Anna: “It makes no sense to me that U.S. athletes would face discrimination in school sports or anywhere else. I have never had any issues with any sport or team; no one ever tried to stop me from anything sports related. All my teachers at school and all of my coaches have been very supportive. 
“I really hope I can motivate and inspire other T1Ds through my journey as a fighter, but most of all to use my platform as a fighter (and hopefully as a more ‘famous’ public figure) to create a real impact and positive change in the T1D community. The life of a fighter is not always easy, so knowing I have a more important mission to accomplish, through my fighting, will keep me happily grinding away.” 

What’s it like to move from Finland to the U.S. with type 1 on board?

A big challenge for Anna, since moving to the U.S., has been the expensive and complicated system of American health care—very different from what she knew in Finland, or later as a university student in Australia. 

Anna: “I would say Finland is definitely ahead in terms of how the society has arranged diabetes care. Doctor’s visits and insulin costs are covered by the society/government (taxes). Our society does not run by health insurance; I never needed health insurance for my diabetes. I would pay 20 euros for doctors’ visits, and around 5 euros for a 3-month supply of insulin. All needles, glucose meters, strips and so on I received for free.
 

“On a student visa in Australia, I needed health insurance, though I got some free medical care because Finland and Australia have a common agreement to give free care for type 1 diabetics. But the insurance was cheaper than U.S. insurance, for better coverage.
“Here in America, health care seems too expensive and complicated. Everything is ruled by insurance. I only just this year purchased better insurance because I couldn’t afford it before. And my insurance still does not cover both of my insulins. I used to purchase insulins from Finland every time I visited or someone visited me, because it was cheaper that way. I hope organizations like T1DF can make an impact on health care access and insulin prices!

What brings together legal advocacy org T1DF and MMA fighter Anna Hyvärinen?

In competitive martial arts, you get results by honing your technical skills and fighting capabilities—and in MMA, by bringing the right discipline into play against every opponent. The same is true in legal advocacy. Good intentions and personal stories can take you only so far: you can only win if you challenge on the right fact pattern, make the right allegations against the right defendants, and pursue the most effective remedies.

The powerful presence and competitive drive of athletes with type 1 in extreme sports like MMA explodes mistaken assumptions about diabetes and lifestyle. Competitive athletes can contribute a lot in raising awareness about the issues faced by U.S. people with T1D, but they often feel pressure to limit their advocacy to promoting healthy eating and active lifestyles. Anna looks past the lifestyle role to push back on some of the tough problems of living with type 1 in America today, including social stigma and treatment cost and access.

Anna: “I’m very happy to partner with T1DF to help challenge public prejudices about diabetes, and to push for the right to proper health care. We need more real change on the right issues. For athletes and public figures to get involved in advocacy projects can help to create real, positive change for everyone in the long term, and that is what we all ultimately want.

What’s next for Anna and T1DF?

We’re thrilled Anna has teamed up with T1DF to talk openly about civil rights and health care discrimination. She is a role model for the T1DF team as we too try to leverage every available fight skill—class-action litigation, regulatory comment, public records requests, and more—to defeat the rebate-capture scheme and bring down the skyrocketing list prices that many insured and uninsured people now pay. We wish her a successful and strategic fighting future—and we’re glad to have her in our corner as we keep pushing for equal access to schools, work, and healthcare.

Whatever challenges you are fighting today, we hope Anna Hyvärinen can also inspire you. Check out Anna in fighting form below, follow her on Instagram @anna_hyvarinen—and watch this space for T1DF’s blue diabetes justice logo in action! 

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All photos: Jenny Queiroz