Pharmacists across the country have been told to restrict prescriptions to a 30-day supply due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic disrupting the supply line and threatening shortages of a variety of drugs.
But the trickle-down effect of the restrictions, showing up at pharmacy counters in the form of increased dispensing fees, is causing concern for many British Columbians who have found themselves facing unprecedented financial uncertainty, particularly seniors and those living on low income.
Gretchen Dawson is in her early 80s and resides in a senior independent living facility in Kelowna with her husband. Between the two of them, they take about 11 prescriptions.
Before the disruption of COVID-19, the pair would visit a local pharmacy every three months to refill their prescriptions, receiving a 90-day supply while paying a dispensing fee of $10 per medication, or $110.
“It’s a $10 dispensing fee for something I would normally only pay once for three months,” she told Black Press Media. “It’s costing me $20 extra every three months for each medication.”
Dawson and her husband are retired and depend on their pensions and Old Age Security. PharmaCare and other insurance providers typically don’t cover the dispensing fee on medications.
She explained to her pharmacist that the extra cost was causing serious financial issues, but was told that the regulations came from the B.C. government amid the COVID-19 crisis and there was nothing they could do to help her.
“The new ruling means they can only dispense for 30 days. But my pharmacist knows me, I have been seeing him for 27 years. I have congestive heart failure, I am not hoarding pills,” explained Dawson.
In a statement released on March 23, the Canadian Pharmacists Association said the restriction on medications is a “temporary but necessary” one.
“By appropriately managing inventory today, we are reducing the risk that a patient will not be able to access their medications tomorrow and into the future,” the association said.
Supply already an ongoing issue in Canada, heightened by the pandemic
With Canadians being told to brace for drug shortages, the federal government has created a team dedicated to addressing the issue, but it’s unclear if there are any possible solutions. Canada isn’t the only country facing the brunt of the low supply.
A large majority of pharmaceuticals, and key ingredients for drugs made elsewhere, come from China and India, according to the Canadian Pharmacists Association, but COVID-19 has disrupted operations in those countries.
That includes the shutdown of businesses and factories in China.
And just like the panic-buying of toilet paper, cleaning supplies and poultry products, a huge rush of people buying over-the-counter drugs have also shortened the supply of acetaminophen and other pills.
With no end in sight for the pandemic, it’s unclear how long a shortage on prescription drugs could last.
Additional dispensing fees could add up quickly, senior fears
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said during a news conference on Friday (April 3) that the concerns around dispensing fees will be addressed, but didn’t provide detail on what measures specifically were being taken.
“We are addressing that,” Henry said. “We’re addressing that for seniors, for people on fair Pharmacare, so that it will be taken care of for most people.”
Dawson said she doesn’t mind getting her medication 30 days at a time but admitted she is worried about the extra costs in the short term.
“The government said they are here to help seniors and give them more money, but that is a joke,” she stammered. “If I take my husband’s pills and my pills, and we have to pay a dispensing fee every 30 days that is an extra $220 every 90 days.”
Dawson asked her pharmacy if they would void the dispensing fee on the two months refills of prescriptions, citing the B.C. Pharmacy Association guideline that prescriptions can only be filled 90 days at a time, however, the pharmacist said no.
Another concern for Dawson is the fact she will have to take additional trips to public spaces in order to visit the pharmacy.
“I could stay home and have the pills delivered but they will charge me to deliver the medication,” she said.