Alberta senior worried about extra fees after prescriptions limited to 1-month supply

An announcement from the Alberta government that it was instructing pharmacists to limit prescriptions to one-month quantities is raising some concerns for seniors in the province.

The move, meant to stabilize the provincial drug supply through COVID-19, has been backed by pharmacy organizations such as the Alberta Pharmacists’ Association and the Alberta College of Pharmacy.

“We’ve been experiencing drug shortages in Alberta for quite some period of time, and with the advent of COVID, we saw that escalating,” said Greg Eberhart, registrar with the Alberta College of Pharmacy.

The Alberta Pharmacists’ Association said in a statement to Global News that “With the global medication supply crisis, all provinces have adopted this policy.”

The province said the policy recommendation was made after specific drugs were starting to see shortages.

Steve Buick, health ministry press secretary, said the Alberta government has asked asked physicians and pharmacists to “use judgement”, and that there are “emerging concerns about supply of asthma inhalers and other common prescription drugs” in the province.

Eberhart added that when the COVID-19 crisis began, there were some people making large orders for medication that also put strain on the supply.

“Some people were certainly wanting to get as much medication as they could,” he said. “There was great concern that if that was to continue that there would be individuals who really needed medications who wouldn’t be able to get them.”

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Concerns about fees

But for 63-year-old Clark Bunko, the new one-month policy will raise costs for his medications.

“The cost is quite a bit greater because I’ll be paying six dispensing fees, where I typically would have just paid the one for the six-month period,” said Bunko

“To try and keep my costs lower, I actually had my doctor arrange for longer prescription times, periods, so that I’m not paying as much in dispensing fees.”

The Alberta government said that it has reduced the co-pay fee in seniors’ and non-group plans to $8 per prescription, from its previous level of $25, to avoid added costs to those affected by the change.

The new policy also isn’t a hard rule.

“It’s important to understand that pharmacists always have some discretion,” Eberhart said. “They do have the latitude to consider special circumstances for individuals, where allowances for more drug could be provided. But again, it should be very situation-specific, and truly respond to a unique need that can’t be accommodated through the continued distribution of the products,” he said.

Bunko said he’ll be able to make the new policy work — but is worried about other seniors in the province.

“I can handle it,” he said. “I will have to make choices, but I wonder if there’s any people that are actually in a position where they’re actually making a choice on which drugs they fill.

“If they end up getting sick from not filling all their prescriptions — if they end up in the hospital. How much is that going to cost the government?”

Social distancing concerns

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, said Wednesday that she also recognized that due to the COVID-19 social distancing rules, some seniors could feel a “burden” having to refill prescriptions every 30 days. She recommended that those worried about contracting COVID-19 should work to find alternative ways to get their medications to them.

“With respect for seniors, what I would encourage people to do is to see if their pharmacy has delivery services,” Hinshaw said. “Many pharmacies do offer this kind of service.”

She also said that seniors could try working with friends, family or neighbours to help pickup medications if their pharmacies don’t deliver.

“The requirement to pick up every 30 days doesn’t necessarily mean that the people leaving who are getting the prescriptions have to leave their house,” Hinshaw said.

The suggestion from the province to limit prescriptions to 30 days was announced on March 19.

“Since this policy has been introduced, we have seen things normalize again, become more stable,” Eberhart said.

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