Nfld. & Labrador

Change that triples annual prescription fees unfair, says senior on fixed income

Pharmacists say the change to monthly refills is needed to prevent drug shortages, but critics note it'll cost more and force seniors to go to the pharmacy more often during a global pandemic.

Pharmacists say the change to monthly refills is necessary to prevent drug shortages

Pharmacists are filling prescriptions monthly, instead of every three months, to try to control the supply of drugs and prevent shortages. (Elise Amendola/The Associated Press)

The annual cost of filling prescriptions has tripled for many people in Newfoundland and Labrador, with Canadian pharmacists changing the way they dispense pharmaceuticals.

In an effort to control the drug supply and prevent future shortages, pharmacists now refill prescriptions monthly instead of every three months, charging clients a dispensing fee every time — bad news for people who rely on prescription pharmaceuticals, especially people on fixed incomes.

 "I can't agree with paying that dispensing fee every month," said Loretta Morgan, 77, of St. John's.

"It's unfair to people on fixed incomes. I don't know what the solution is but I know it's unfair for seniors. Very, very unfair."

Morgan, who lives on a fixed income and is one of thousands of people in this province affected by the change, will pay a $36 monthly dispensing fee ( $432 a year) instead of $36 every three months ($144 a year).

More trips to pharmacy

Morgan says the change will increase her risk of exposure to the virus that causes COVID-19.

She's staying home more because she's heard people her age are more likely to become very sick if they contract the new virus but now she's being asked to leave her home more.

"I used to go to the supermarket once a week. I don't go there now and they're asking me to go out to the pharmacy more often and probably stand in line with other people. I know you can stand six feet apart but, you know, it's not fair," said Morgan.

Other seniors concerned too

Newfoundland and Labrador's seniors' advocate said many seniors she's spoken with have the same concerns as Morgan.

"There are two things. One is the extra amount of money. The other is that they now have to go out more for prescriptions, and we don't want seniors going anywhere near the pharmacy, or anywhere else, unless they absolutely  have to."

Suzanne Brake, provincial seniors' advocate, says she's heard from seniors concerned about the change. File photo. (Danny Arsenault/CBC)

Brake agrees the monthly filling of prescriptions is a good measure to prevent shortages, but she would like to see people charged prescription fees every third time a prescription is filled. She also suggested delivering drugs directly to peoples' home would be a good way to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

"Delivery would be ideal," she said.

Pharmacists must be paid

The move to monthly prescription fills was initiated by the Canadian Pharmacy association and adopted by pharmacists across the country in mid-March.

"There are shortages right now," said Janice Audeau, president of the Pharmacists' Association of Newfoundland and Labrador.

"I heard pharmacists saying they have five patients who need an inhaler so they have to decide who they think is the most appropriate to get that inhaler at that time. That is a very difficult decision and we're trying to avoid that for other drugs. So this is to help manage current shortages."

Janice Audeau, president of the Pharmacists' Association of Newfoundland and Labrador, says the change is necessary and pharmacists should be compensated for the extra work. File photo. (Brian McHugh/CBC)

Audeau says pharmacists agree something should be done to help seniors and people on fixed incomes but they also say the solution can't be for them to waive dispensing fees.

"Whether a prescription is filled for 30 days or 90 day or one week, the pharmacist has to check it the same way. I don't think that it's reasonable for anyone to expect us continue to go to work under these circumstances and work for free." 

Fees are covered for some

At Tuesday's Newfoundland and Labrador COVID-19 daily update, Health Minister John ​​Haggie said Department of Health has reservations about any measure that encourages people to leave their homes more frequently.

Newfoundland and Labrador Health Minister John Haggie says the change will cost the province $7 million more a year. File photo. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

He noted dispensing fees are covered for more than 130,000 people under the provincial government's prescription drug program who have prescriptions filled every 90 days.

One day later, on Wednesday, Haggie announced the province will extend coverage to pay the dispensing fees for people eligible for benefits under the provincial prescription drug plan who have prescriptions filled every 30 days.

But so far the province doesn't have a solution for people who rely on insurance to pay for prescription drugs or those who pay prescription fees out of pocket.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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