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Coronavirus: Okanagan seniors voice concerns about hike in prescription costs

B.C. seniors voice concern about spike in prescription costs

Many people refilling prescriptions during the coronavirus pandemic have faced sudden sticker shock.

Patients with regular prescriptions typically get a three-month supply, but many pharmacies are currently only doling out 30 days of a medicine at a time.

And for those on fixed incomes, the additional dispensing fees are quickly adding up.

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“It’s costing us an extra $300 to $400 a year just in dispensing fees alone. The only people making money are the pharmacists,” said Kelowna senior Jim Jones, adding that he lives on a fixed income of CPP and old age security.

“So you’re supposed to keep your distance, yet you have to go to the drug store every month to get your prescriptions,” he said.

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The BC Pharmacy Association said in a statement that the decision by most pharmacists in B.C. and across Canada to only dispense a 30-day supply was driven by the need to ensure that there is a reliable supply of medications over the next few months.

“Dispensing 30 days’ supply of medication is an action pharmacists are taking to ensure as many people as possible can access the medications they need now and in the next few, likely unpredictable, months,” president Keith Shaw said.

READ MORE: Some Canadians to pay additional pharmacy dispensing fees due to coronavirus restrictions

However, while Jones said he’s fine with only receiving a month of medication at a time, he doesn’t think each return visit to the pharmacy should incur a charge.

“I’ll go back and get the other two and not have to pay dispensing fees: that’s fair,” he said. “I’m still leaving myself exposed, but that’s fair. I’m not paying that extra money.”

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Summerland senior Dan Virgint estimates he’ll end up paying another $500 a year in dispensing fees.

READ MORE: Some Canadians to pay additional pharmacy dispensing fees due to coronavirus restrictions

He also said repeat visits to the pharmacy come with a risk of catching COVID-19 or another infection.

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“It does force me to go out more often than I’m really comfortable with at this time,” he said, noting that many people who are going to pharmacies are sick.

Virgint also voiced concern that financially strapped seniors will take drastic measures because of the additional dispensing fees.

“We know what happens: they start to cut their pills in half, or they stop taking pills because of the expense,” he said.

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Chris Chiew, the general manager of pharmacy for London Drugs in Western Canada, said that stores initially had to limit prescriptions after people started stockpiling supplies, and wholesalers weren’t able to fill full orders.

“We were finding that there was too much of a spike, that the supply chain would not be able to handle it if people kept coming in for a three-month supply early,” he said.

“A large majority of these drugs come from overseas, from India and China,” he added. “If you can imagine, with China having its shutdown for two months, and India closing all their borders as well to . . . we were running out of stock for everybody.”

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The strain on the supply chain prompted pharmacies to limit prescriptions to a 30-day supply, Chiew said.

“When we received that one bottle from our wholesalers, we could either choose to give that one bottle of 100 tablets to one patient, or we could divide it into three and give it to three different patients at that point,” he said.

Chiew also said that pharmacists were still doing the work each time a prescription was filled, which is why the dispensing fee was still charged.

“Whether we dispense a 30-day supply or a 90-day supply, the amount of labour that we need to do is the same,” Chiew said. “And if you can imagine, pharmacists are also answering questions about COVID and taking over-the-counter questions and phone calls from doctors.”

In the last week and a half, London Drugs has mostly been able to return to filling 90-day prescriptions as the supply chain bounces back, Chiew said.

However, he is asking patients to only get what they need.

READ MORE: B.C. man hospitalized after pharmacy accidentally gives him powerful opioid

Other pharmacies who have also restricted prescriptions to 30 days’ worth of supply did not return a request for comment by deadline.

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Meanwhile, seniors, are calling for the province to step in.

“I appreciate that they are offering a service and are entitled to get paid for it, but I think the government has to consider the cost to a lot of senior people,” Virgint said.

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Provincial health officer Doctor Bonnie Henry and health minister Adrian Dix said at the beginning of April that they are aware of concerns about the dispensing fees, and that they’re looking at ways to address the issue.

The province said in an email on Thursday that it is still working to find a solution.