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It Could Be A Challenge To Stockpile Your Prescription Medicine

NOEL KING, HOST:

As the coronavirus continues to spread, federal health officials are recommending that people stock up on their prescription medications. That might not be as easy as it sounds. Here's NPR's Patti Neighmond.

PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: The advice to have an emergency supply of prescription medications is excellent, says Peter Jacobson with the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

PETER JACOBSON: People should not be caught short of having enough heart medication, diabetic medication - anything potentially life-saving that they need on a routine daily or weekly or monthly basis.

NEIGHMOND: But here's the hard part - most insurance companies have rigid schedules for authorizing refills. Typically, that means if you have, say, a one-month supply, you can't refill it until the 24th day or so; or if you have a 90-day supply, you can't refill it until the 85th or even 88th day. And Jacobson says working it out with insurance companies can be difficult.

JACOBSON: Have you ever tried to deal with your insurer over the phone? First of all, can you even get through? How long do you have to wait on line?

NEIGHMOND: How often have you been told to call back or been sent to another department? Here's an alternative - Jacobson says talk to your pharmacist, who can help.

JACOBSON: They do it all the time. They're constantly talking to the primary care physician or any specialist on the nature of a prescription, the length of time.

NEIGHMOND: Another option - talk to your primary care physician. Most insurers will relax their refill policies in cases of natural disasters like hurricanes or earthquakes, and that's beginning to happen now with the coronavirus. For example, the health insurance plan provider Anthem is now recommending its members talk with their doctor about whether they need to increase their regular one-month supply of medication to three months. But even with relaxed policies, stockpiling medication could be difficult, especially for low-income people.

Frederick Isasi, with the consumer advocacy group Families USA.

FREDERICK ISASI: If they're not insured, the cost could be quite prohibitive for them. So it will definitely impact the low-income and working families much more than other folks.

NEIGHMOND: And even if they are insured, Isasi says co-pays could end up being just too much, especially for expensive drugs like insulin.

ISASI: Folks are routinely getting hit with very expensive copayments for insulin. In those instances, even insured families who are lower-income will really have a hard time being able to afford to pay for that stockpile of insulin.

NEIGHMOND: It's not clear how much extra medication people should have on hand. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls for an emergency supply; the Department of Homeland Security says a continuous supply. But neither specifies whether that means one month or three months.

Patti Neighmond, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.