Prescription drug costs listening session

Samantha Mills, field representative for U.S. Sen. Al Franken, visits with people during a listening session on prescription drugs.

MANKATO, Minn. — Seniors are having to get creative in order to deal with skyrocketing prescription drug costs.

Pills meant to be taken every other day are rationed to last longer. When that still isn’t enough, necessary prescriptions might go entirely unfilled, leading to hospital visits that further add to their troubles.

This is the reality faced by many seniors in Minnesota, some of whom shared their stories recently with members of U.S. Sen. Al Franken’s staff.

The meeting was part of a statewide tour to gather perspectives on the local impacts of hiked-up drug costs. Franken’s staff intends to take the testimonies  to Washington, D.C.

For Loren Schwarze of St. Peter, Minnesota rising drug costs for his wife and him mean tough conversations on where to make cuts in order to make ends meet.

“We argue and call the doctor to tell him that (the prescription) was nice — seemed to help — but how do we go off of this now after a month because it costs too much?” he said.

Schwarze told the Mankato (Minnesota) Free Press one of his wife’s medications was priced as high as $237 recently, a major hike that left him as frustrated as he was unsure of what to do next.

Schwarze is not alone. Skyrocketing drug prices — both for generic and name-brand drugs — have drawn considerable media coverage and led to contentious hearings on Capitol Hill, with lawmakers taking CEOs of pharmaceutical companies to task over price increases of as much as 5,000 percent. For example, according to the National Average Drug Acquisition Cost pricing file, the price of captopril, a common drug used to treat hypertension, rose from 1.4 cents per pill to 39.9 cents per pill, an increase of 2,800 percent.

Karen Sawatzky said high drug costs lead her to severely cut down on her dosage of psoriasis medication. Meant to be taken every other day, she takes it closer to once per week — all in the name of affordability.

“I used it probably once every six days just to make it last,” she said. “Now I’m out.”

She credits her pharmacist for helping her search for affordable medication, although no solution has solved the problem yet. Others credited their pharmacists as allies, too.

Most of the blame, on the other hand, seemed to be pointed upward to the insurance companies and corporate executives.

The stories of hardship were right in line with other meetings held thus far, said Samantha Mills, a field representative for Franken.

“Every place that we’ve gone, we’ve really heard these stories about seniors that are having to make decisions about extending the dosage or cutting pills or even just going without their medication because they can’t afford it,” she said.

As for what can be done to address the sky-high prescription costs, Mills said Franken and other senators are pushing to limit the amount of time it takes generic drugs to hit the market, among other proposals.

“If we continue to ignore this issue, this is where it is now, and I think it’s important for him to be able to share what that means for older adults both in Mankato and all over Minnesota,” she said.

Any changes can’t come soon enough for Schwarze, who said the situation seems hopeless at times. He said the costs hit his family hard, but he finds ways to make it through.

“When you just don’t have it, you have to make it up,” he said. “Peanut butter becomes a staple … soup becomes a nice thing.”

Arola writes for the Mankato (Minnesota) Free Press.

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