The skyrocketing price of medicine and how it impacts rural N.C. areas

Bridging the Great Health Divide: What’s not new is the skyrocketing price of medicine - the very thing that saves people’s lives.
Published: Nov. 16, 2021 at 6:37 PM EST
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - You’ve been hearing a lot about soaring prices of late - gas, food, clothing - they are all costing you quite a bit more money.

The sharp increases in those kinds of things are relatively new.

What’s not new is the skyrocketing price of medicine - the very thing that saves people’s lives.

Here are some examples.

  • Bystolic treats high blood pressure. The AARP says between 2015-2020, the retail price of the drug has gone up 41 percent.
  • Victoza treats diabetes, and it’s up 42 percent.
  • Symbicort, which is prescribed for Asthma and Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, is up 46 percent.

There is a program designed to help people in rural and low-income areas afford their medications. The federal government calls it 340-B.

It forces drug manufacturers to give discounts to certain hospitals, but the drug companies say the use of the program has gotten out of hand.

They say health care companies aren’t passing on the savings, and claim hospitals are pocketing profits.

It’s not hard to see who is caught in the middle, patients.

These issues are trickling down to rural North Carolina. Ashe County has really utilized this program.

Now, as more drug manufacturers back out - it’s taking a toll on the community.

On Your Side Tonight’s Greg Simpson uses his camera to show us first hand.

“Ashe County is a small rural county in the coolest corner of the state and Northwestern North Carolina. A county that caters to the retirement age demographic,” Dr. Richard Watts said. “We are a 25-bed critical access hospital serving the needs of Ashe County and the surrounding counties.”

Dr. Richard Watts, director of Pharmacy Services at Ashe Memorial Hospital, says participation in the 340-B program is solely up to the drug manufacturers.

“They are opting out of it because they think it cuts into their bottom line. So when they fall out of it, it costs Ashe Memorial more to buy these medications and we have to pass that cost increase onto our patients,” Dr. Watts said. “And we’re able to do less community events and less charitable care than we would be able to do if we had full participation. It affects folks because they may not seek the treatment that they need due to cost concerns.”

Diane Harless who works at Ashe Medication Assistance Program, says they help people get medication that don’t have insurance, are underinsured or have Medicare Part D that are in the coverage gap.

“We’ve been here 20 years. We give out $2 million worth of medicine a year to individuals. I didn’t realize how hard it was until I started here 10 years ago, and I see that it’s just hard for people, they just cannot afford it,” Harless said. “We need this in the county. If we did not do this, I don’t know how the people would make it. To keep everybody that don’t have insurance out of the hospital, keep them healthy, so they can hold down the job and do things that they want to do because they have the medication they need.”

As WBTV continues to work to bridge the great health divide, you can watch and read more of our reporting right now.

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