Rising drug prices hurt local families

Published: Dec. 14, 2018 at 11:34 PM CST
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"When he ended up getting discharged from the hospital, I was on my way over to the pharmacy, 'Don't worry babe, I'll get your prescriptions filled!' And I go over there and I was thinking $50, $100 maybe. No, it was thousands of dollars. So I stood there and I cried because I didn't have an extra thousand dollars," Naomi Burkland says. "A lady ended up giving me money. She handed me her money and said, 'You need this more than I do.' And so, I don't know her name, and I tried to give it back – she would not take it back. I just want to say thank you. And I'll never forget that. Ever."

Burkland's husband needs insulin to live after an illness wiped out his pancreas three years ago. But rising drug costs are forcing Burkland's family to make tough decisions. "Between paying my premiums to have the insurance and the insulin out of pocket, I'm paying about $11,400 a year," she says. "I love him, I want him to live, but I also need a roof over my children's heads. So it gets to be very hard financially."

Burkland's family isn't alone - more than 7-million Americans need insulin to live. But insulin prices have nearly tripled since 2002, causing some patients to go to extreme lengths to afford their medication.

"If you're a patient who cannot afford insulin, but they need it – you very well could try to make it stretch. If your regimen requires a certain dose, and that's the does you need – well, if you can't afford to have that dose, then you'll try to lower the dose to make the medicine last longer," says Dr. Douglas Gugel-Bryant, PharmD, BCPS, a Medical Home Pharmacist with Sanford Health. "On the bright side, you might argue that somebody might be OK, but in reality, they're still pushing towards the idea of being unhealthy and that leads to other problems."

Cutting back on insulin puts users at risk for heart disease, stroke, blindness, kidney failure, and amputations.

Now, families, doctors, and advocates are turning to politicians for relief.

"There's a push to try to talk to senators and try to get legislature to try to say this is not OK. The price that we pay for insulin here in America is probably about six times higher than what they do in Europe anyway – for the same insulin," Gugel-Bryant says. "Legislature can come in and say, 'Listen companies, this isn't right.'"

State Senator Tim Mathern (D - District 11) says he wants to help, but he needs residents to speak up.

"Right now, I don't know of any specific legislation that is going through regarding insulin medication, however – we could do something, to the degree that the citizens say we need to address this problem," says Mathern. "They need to talk to their congressmen. Many of the drug prices issues are actually national, so they need to get a hold of Senators Hoeven, Cramer, Congressman Armstrong about these issues. But they also need to have some communication with their local state legislators – like me – because we're concerned about this also and there are some state initiatives."

"Citizens are not at the legislature very often. Pharmaceutical companies are," Mathern continues. "I would be most willing to work with citizens about legislation in that regard but we need a groundswell, we need a greater movement of people asking for this."

Burkland says residents and legislators needs to do something now - because it's not just her family who's suffering.

"If you think about all of the younger kids coming off of their parents insurance – I mean, they can't afford that. Nobody can," she says. "There should be no reason at all that any family should have to feel put out like this with the financial burden of these medications. These pharmaceutical companies can not be doing this anymore."

Some patients also try to buy their insulin overseas or online to get cheaper prices.

"I did have friends that came back from Mexico. I gave them $300 cash and said, 'Bring me back what you can for $300.' And I got 18 pens of insulin for my husband. And so $300 – 18 pens. $700 – you get 5 pens here," Burkland says.

Doctors don't recommended that, saying they can't guarantee those drugs are safe - but patients can buy older formulas of insulin for a cheaper price at stores like Walmart.

"Cheaper insulin options do exist. They're older, and they're not advertised anymore," says Gugel-Bryant. "I have a fair amount of patients actually right now that due to cost, I've had to put them on to these insulins. And I argue that yeah, it's not optimal, but I also say that it's keeping them out of the hospital, it's keeping them from having other problems."

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