Soaring drug prices: Southwest Floridians forced to choose between their health and paying bills

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Bottles of medication at a pharmacy. (CBS News photo)
Bottles of medication at a pharmacy. (CBS News photo)

“I’m almost a month away from homelessness,” said Hope McCrea. She’s in her 70s and lives in Port Charlotte. McCrea has health issues affecting her pancreas. She also lives with arthritis and the medicine she takes is not cheap. “My income is around $1,000 a month. My prescriptions can run as high as $4,000 a month,” she explained.

She’s not alone.

Maryann Hebert, who is also from Charlotte County, told WINK News, “It’s too high. Too high. Unaffordable for everyone. It’s just ridiculous.” She’s one of about a million people in the U.S. living with multiple sclerosis or M.S. It’s a disease of the central nervous system. Her life-saving medication takes hundreds of dollars out of her pocket every month.

Both women keep seeing their costs go up.

We first met Hebert in February, and we checked in with her again in March. She said, “It went from $6,600 last month to $7,187 this month.”

That’s how much it would cost without Medicare and grant money she has to apply for. At the end of the day, she’s paying $339 for one of her M.S. medications for one month and $277 a month for the other. That adds up to $676 per month for just two medications. In an effort to save some money, Hebert said, “I try to juggle between three grocery stores.”

McCrea said she depends on friends for help with basic necessities like food. She explained, “If it wasn’t extra help, I’d be lost!”

Until major changes to drug pricing are made, patient advocates like Lora McCann said, “Shop your pharmacies. If you’re looking at an oncological drug, work through your provider’s office. They’re going to be your best resource.”

Pharmacies also say there are steps you can take to save money. Ashley Alvarez is a pharmacy technician at San Carlos Pharmacy. She recommended, “Ask the doctor for cheaper generic medications. Sometimes the prices of insurance are cheaper outside of insurance.” If all else fails, she also said to consider an independent pharmacy, because they have more control over pricing to an extent.

In the meantime, folks like McCrea are relying on their faith. “I am a Christian. I’m God fearing. I’m going to do what’s right.” She’s going to do what’s right for her health and right for her budget.

We checked with Hebert again in April. She said she got another grant for her medications, but she also said, “I’m a little shaky. I just got my new medication.” With the money she’s got to pay for it “at least now I’m at ease. I’m not walking around on pins and needles,” she said.

Both McCrea and Hebert say they will be looking into Florida’s new Canadian drug importation program when Governor DeSantis signs it into law. They hope to finder cheaper drugs through Canadian pharmacies once the idea gets going. It was just approved by the Florida House and Senate.

We reached out to the Area Agency on Aging for Southwest Florida for advice on saving too.

Here’s some tips they offer when it comes to Medicare:

• Review your plan every year to make sure it still meets your needs.

• Plans, coverage limits, providers and drug formularies can change annually.

• SHINE Counselors are an excellent resource for helping you evaluate your Medicare plans. SHINE is a free, unbiased counseling service offered by the Area Agency on Aging for SWFL through the Department of Elder Affairs.

• Explore It can show you the prices that your prescriptions will cost at different pharmacies.

• Don’t procrastinate: there are limited windows when you can change your plans.

• Find out if you’re eligible for cost savings programs.

• For Medicare beneficiaries on a limited income, there are government-funded programs that may be able to help significantly with the cost of co-pays or deductibles.

• For high-cost prescriptions, discount cards, apps and websites can sometimes get you a better deal than your insurance coverage.

• If you can pay on-the-spot, ask your pharmacist about the “cash price” for your prescription.You may actually pay less by paying out-of-pocket.

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