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Experts are recommending people stock up on critical medications in order to prepare for a coronavirus outbreak in the US.
But some consumers are worried that's not possible since insurance companies put limits on how much of a medicine you can pick up at once.
While insurance companies may ease restrictions during emergency situations, those that responded to Business Insider said it's too early to do so in response to coronavirus.
Other problems like drug shortages due to ingredients being manufactured in affected countries are also a concern.
Healthcare professionals recommend talking to your pharmacist about prescription refills and following standard hygiene advice to stay healthy.
Melissa Chang has lived with depression for 17 years, the better part of her adult life. She's spent tens of thousands of dollars on doctors, therapists, and special treatments, but has struggled to find a solution that lacks serious side effects.
Then, about a year and a half ago, Chang tried a new antidepressant that — at $85 a month with insurance and $400 without it — was expensive, but worked.
"Now that I'm finally doing somewhat well on this new medication, I've made the tough financial choice to continue on it to keep my stability," Chang, a 30-something nonprofit worker in Brooklyn whose name has been changed because her family doesn't know about her mental health history, told Business Insider.
But now, the coronavirus's potential impact on her ability to access the drug is threatening Chang's peace of mind, she said. She said her insurance limits her to a one-month supply of the medicine at a time
In order to prepare for a potential coronavirus outbreak in the US, the Department of Homeland Security recommends Americans "ensure a continuous supply" of prescription meds in their homes. One doctor suggested a 30-day supply.
Even though there are now only about 60 known cases of the virus in the US, some Americans are already preparing. 18% of US adults saying they're stocking up on meds, according to an Insider survey of 1,051 people.
But others like Chang worry they'll have trouble stocking up due to insurance company restrictions, supply-chain issues, and logistical snafus.
"I see this as less a conceptual problem than it is a logistical one and practical one that can be dealt with, but the stakeholders need to take action now and communicate it back to patients," Peter Jacobson, professor emeritus of health management and policy at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, told Business Insider.
Insurance companies say it's too early to institute emergency preparedness plans
Outside of times of crisis, there are valid reasons insurance companies limit when and how much of certain meds people can load up on. They could be misused or misplaced, expire, or sold in a black market.
"Insurers have to balance the need for not allowing patients access to drugs that could harm them if not taken correctly with the harm from not taking the meds," Jacobson said.
In an emergency, insurers can relax their restrictions to make it easier for people to get care and stock up on prescriptions. According to America's Health Insurance Plans, these emergency plans "may include easing network requirements, prescription drug coverage, referral requirements, and/or cost sharing."
Business Insider reached out to a number of insurance companies to ask about plans for the coronavirus. None of them said they're making changes in response to the coronavirus, just yet.
A spokesperson from Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina, for example, said that, at the moment, the company isn't making any sweeping policy changes to help consumers get advance access to medications. "But should the need arise," he added, "this is something we would consider and regularly do for emergency situations that affect communities."
At Humana, a spokesperson said the company "has a process in place to allow early refills" once there is an official disaster declaration, but that hasn't happened yet, so speculation about the virus's business impact "would be premature. So far, he added, the company hasn't seen any increase in requests to fill prescriptions early.
CVS Health, which operates the health insurer Aetna and a prescription drug business, said it could make it easier for people to refill prescriptions if needed.
"We have standard policy liberalizations and modifications that can and would be implemented to ensure member access to care," a spokesman said.
Ben Hertz, a pharmacist at Elmora Healthcare, an independent pharmacy in Elizabeth, New Jersey, told Insider he hasn't seen any increase in requests for early refills.
Rather, "everyone is certainly looking for respiratory masks," he said. Health experts say masks are unnecessary for most people, if you're already healthy.
Marzio Toniolo / Reuters
Medications may also be tough to access due to supply-chain issues
Even if insurance companies lifted restrictions, it could still be tough for Americans who wanted to refill their scripts early.
After all, drug shortages are a problem even outside of emergencies, with one 2019 study of 719 hospital pharmacists finding that more than two-thirds of them deal with at least 50 drug shortages every year. Often, the professionals ration the drugs as a result.
Now, the coronavirus may thin the supply of certain drugs, especially those which use ingredients from countries most affected by the virus. On Thursday, the US Food and Drug Administration announced that an unnamed manufacturer reported a shortage of a drug due to a coronavirus-related issue.
"Shortages of medications are of more concern" than people being unable to stock up on prescriptions, Ramzi Yacoub, chief pharmacy officer at SingleCare, a prescription savings service, told Insider. Both he and the FDA emphasized, however, that alternatives are available.
Americans worried about prescription refills should call their pharmacists
Yacoub told Insider that, whether ahead of a potential pandemic or not, consumers shouldn't wait until their prescriptions run out to call in for a refill. Typically, a seven-day lead time suffices in case the pharmacist needs to get in touch with your doctor or order more of the medication.
That forethought is especially important during a potential outbreak, he said.
Meantime, the best advice Yacoub has echoes the CDC's and public health officials: wash your hands thoroughly and frequently, avoid people who are sick, refrain from touching your eyes and mouth, and stay home if you experience symptoms.
"The most important thing is prevention of exposure," he said.
SurveyMonkey Audience polls from a national sample balanced by census data of age and gender. Respondents are incentivized to complete surveys through charitable contributions. Generally speaking, digital polling tends to skew toward people with access to the internet. SurveyMonkey Audience doesn't try to weigh its sample based on race or income. A total of 1,051 respondents were collected February 27, 2020, a margin of error plus or minus 3.09 percentage points with a 95% confidence level.
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