Waiting for my man: Is our pharmacy system collapsing?

This morning, I went to my local pharmacy to pick up a prescription. There were three giant new signs over the register and behind the counter that weren't there before:

"NEW ORDER RESTRICTIONS FROM THE MAJOR DRUG COMPANIES encourage customers to call 5 DAYS IN ADVANCE to ensure your prescription refill is here and waiting when you are ready to pick it up. We apologize for this inconvenience and look forward to a future of providing your every healthcare need." (See the sign for yourself; I edited the name of my pharmacy out.)

I called the manager over. "What's happening?" I asked. Her response scared me.

The drug companies are no longer shipping drugs to the pharmacy on a timely basis because they're no longer getting paid on a timely basis. Over the past few months, as fiscal troubles have gripped the country, payments for prescriptions have stopped flowing. Your health insurance, your drug coverage, Medicare, Medicaid, state-funded assistance companies -- most of them have slowed down the speed at which they're paying for your prescriptions.

In response, she said, the major drug companies are requiring my pharmacy (and countless others) to impose a five-day waiting period on refills. That's business days. In this way, the money-flow problem has trickled down to become the burden of the little guy. Those extra few days are causing a pileup that affects businesses and patients alike.

If you were wondering when this recession was going to start hitting your health, here's your answer.

My pharmacist told me that the system by which our prescriptions are paid and delivered is seizing up. She said that many pharmacies are unable to front the money required to make sure their customers get their drugs as quickly as they used to, and banks aren't giving loans even for this purpose, so they have to go with the new demands from the major drug companies. Correction: You do. You have to wait up to a week for your drugs now.

My manager told me the problem doesn't stop with late payments by insurers. She's seen a surge in prescription requests for antidepressants, sleeping pills, and other stress-related drugs. So not only is she in the middle of a system that's freezing up, she's also burdened by an increase in requests being put into that system.

How is this frozen flow affecting her business? "We're barely hanging on," she said. "I don't know how the big corporate pharmacies are doing." My pharmacy, which has been in business since the Kennedy Administration, is looking down the barrel of its final days. And if our drug coverage is no longer being paid, many more of us will be as well.

Even if your pharmacy survives somehow, state-run drug programs and insurance companies are wheezing for air, underfunded and oversubscribed, and if they go under, it's not as if Americans can afford to pay $3,000 a month in out-of-pocket prescription costs to make sure their afflictions are tended to. As long as drugs cost as much as they do, taking care of drug bills with a paycheck is out for many people.

This scenario was totally new to me. Every link in the chain, except for the drug companies themselves, seems to be breaking down. Is anyone else experiencing new restrictions on their health care coverage that weren't there a month ago?

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