Prescription drug shortages threaten the health of anyone who takes medications regularly. When individuals cannot obtain or afford prescription medications, they may be tempted to cut or skip doses. However, to treat acute illness, manage chronic disease and stay healthy, medicines must be taken as prescribed. If prescription drugs are out of stock or too expensive, quick action can keep a medication shortage from turning into a medical emergency.
Why Do Prescription Drug Shortages Occur?
Some prescription medications are lifesavers; for example, insulin keeps the body functioning properly. Without it, the body creates poisonous ketone acids, leading to a dangerous condition, ketoacidosis. However, the supply of even familiar drugs cannot be taken for granted. There are only three insulin drugmakers in the United States—Lilly, Novo Nordisk and Sanofi—raising the risk of an insulin shortage.
Safe and effective medications can be difficult to produce. Some drug manufacturing plants close temporarily or operate below capacity due to factory quality or staffing problems. In 2023, one of the two U.S. plants that supply liquid albuterol shut down due to quality issues. Children’s hospitals scrambled to find the asthma treatment at the peak of the Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) season.
Demand for a drug also can rise unexpectedly, leading to medication shortages. For example, doctors may adopt new uses for existing drugs. For example, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Ozempic, an injectable medication, to regulate blood sugar level for people with Type 2 diabetes. Because it reduces appetite in many patients, doctors began prescribing it to nondiabetics for weight control. The same active ingredient, semaglutide, is approved to treat obesity in the drug Wegovy, but its cost is double that of Ozempic for some individuals. Many providers began prescribing Ozempic for weight loss, leading to Ozempic backorders.
How Do Drug Shortages Impact Patients with Chronic Conditions?
Some patients stop taking medications or take less than the prescribed dose if they cannot get them. Drug shortages can also drive up prescription costs, sometimes putting their price out of reach. But if lack of medication adherence brings on a health setback, skipping or cutting down on medications may prove costly in the long run.
Diabetes medication shortages can raise blood sugar levels and cause hyperglycemia. Persistent high blood sugar increases the risk of heart disease and can cause permanent damage to the eyes, kidneys, hands, legs, and arms.
Patients with other chronic conditions should also be concerned about prescription drug shortages. Unmanaged high blood pressure increases the risk of heart attack or stroke, which can cause disability, but four hypertension medications were in short supply after drug recalls in 2022. An individual with ADHD may have difficulty performing at school or work without the medication they depend upon to help them focus. Prescriptions for Adderall, an ADHD treatment, spiked during the COVID-19 emergency, tightening supplies.
What to Do if Your Medication is Unavailable or Too Expensive
There are options to consider if a prescription medication is unavailable or unaffordable due to a drug shortage. Check with nearby pharmacies that may have the drug in stock. Ask the provider if another similar medication may work. Some health plans may make a "tier exception" covering a higher-cost medicine when a lower-cost option has been ineffective. Many drug manufacturers offer discount coupons or co-pay assistance programs for patients who cannot afford their medications.
Taking prescription medications as directed is vital to managing chronic conditions. By working with their healthcare provider and pharmacist, seniors can find affordable options to meet their needs.