Medication Shortages Cause Concerns Over Prescription Drug Price Gouging, From The Senior Citizens League

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A new poll conducted by The Senior Citizens League, from January through March 20, 2020, when there was still a relatively low number of U.S. COVID-19 cases, indicates that 36 percent of survey participants report that they expected their total drug costs will grow by more than 10 percent this year.

Policy Analyst

“This is an election year and the last thing your Members of Congress want to hear is that health insurers are blaming COVID-19 for their steep price increases,” says Johnson.

Concern is growing that prescription drug shortages due to the COVID-19 pandemic may cause significant spikes in prescription drug costs for retirees, The Senior Citizens League (TSCL) warns. “Some of the recent data, and email from the public suggests that we may be in for stiff jumps in some prescription drug prices,” says Mary Johnson, a Medicare and Social Security policy analyst for The Senior Citizens League.

A new poll conducted by The Senior Citizens League, from January through March 20, 2020, when there was still a relatively low number of U.S. COVID-19 cases, indicates that 36 percent of survey participants report that they expected their total drug costs will grow by more than 10 percent this year. Of those, 19 percent thought their costs would grow by more than 20 percent, based on their best estimate of 2020 Medicare drug or health plan premiums, deductibles and out-of-pocket costs.

“But those estimates did not anticipate COVID-19 - caused drug shortages for some of the most widely-prescribed medications, such as albuterol inhalers, or the insulin drug Lantus,” says Johnson. A study published in the Annuals of Internal Medicine in 2018 suggests that pharmaceutical companies raise prices of drugs that face shortage about 20 percent annually on average, but about 9 percent annually for medications in good supply. “There is nothing in Medicare Part D pricing system that protects older Americans from stiff price increases during the coronavirus crisis,” Johnson says.

Johnson recently refilled a prescription for albuterol inhalers, a drug that is reported to be in short supply. Her drug plan’s online pharmacy posted an estimated copay of $81.00 each. Her small, privately- owned walk-in pharmacy was still was charging $46.99 each. “While I managed to save on this refill using our local pharmacy, it’s not clear whether I will be able to do that again for the next one,” Johnson notes. Johnson put together a list of steps that consumers can take if encountering significant prescription drug price increases:

1. Contact your doctor’s office and alert them to the price increase. Ask if they have emergency samples of your prescription that they can provide, or if they can give you the contact number of programs that can help you.
2. Ask your doctor if you have alternate drug choices to manage your condition. Ask your doctor if there are changes you can make in diet or exercise that could help reduce your reliance on the medication or help lower the quantity that you need to take.
3. Call your local State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP) and ask for free counseling from a Medicare counselor. You can find local contact info here: https://www.shiptacenter.org. Many of these programs operate through local agencies on aging or senior services departments. Counselors can help you over the phone from home.
4. Depending on your income, you may qualify for Medicare Extra Help, which can cover most or all of your prescription drug premium and out-of-pocket costs. A SHIP counselor may also know of special programs in your state.
5. Double check the price quote that you received by checking the difference in price between several retail walk-in pharmacies and mail-in. Often, mail order can be less expensive than walk-in retail, but not always. If you have your prescriptions set up for automatic mail order shipments, double check the current prices and make adjustments if you can lower that cost. Check for each separate drug.
6. If you feel the price increase isn’t justified, send an email to your Members of Congress!

“This is an election year and the last thing your Members of Congress want to hear is that health insurers are blaming COVID-19 for their steep price increases,” says Johnson. There is a tool for checking whether there really is a shortage. Look up your prescription in the FDA’s drug shortage database.

Safeguarding the health of Americans is of primary importance now. The Senior Citizens League is working for legislation that would help strengthen and boost Social Security and lower out-of-pocket Medicare costs. To learn more, visit http://www.SeniorsLeague.org.

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With 1.2 million supporters, The Senior Citizens League is one of the nation’s largest nonpartisan seniors’ groups. Its mission is to promote and assist members and supporters, to educate and alert senior citizens about their rights and freedoms as U.S. Citizens, and to protect and defend the benefits senior citizens have earned and paid for. The Senior Citizens League is a proud affiliate of The Retired Enlisted Association. Visit http://www.SeniorsLeague.org for more information.

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Shannon Benton
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