According to a report released by the U.S. Senate in March, drug shortages in the United States have increased nearly 30% between 2021 and 2022. As of the writing of this article 237 prescription drugs were on the American Society of Health-System Pharmacist’s (ASHP) shortage list. The FDA lists 207. The list includes everything from antibiotics, steroids, and albuterol (a common asthma medication), to blood pressure stabilizers. While it’s easy to blame the recent pandemic — which plays a role in the shortages, to be sure — the causes are much more economic in nature. 

Image of prescription drugs scattered across a tabletop, seemingly spilling out of a bottleMany of the shortages that we’re experiencing are due to a system that is frustratingly opaque and difficult to monitor. With the recent ADHD medication shortage, for example, drug producers blamed government restrictions and supply-chain issues (which can only be confirmed or denied by the FDA, and they’re not talking). Some medications are increasingly hard to find because of the pressure to provide drugs at the lowest possible price point; manufacturers cut corners to reduce costs, which leaves producers unprepared to increase supply if demand increases. In addition, manufacturers of lower-priced medications are at higher risk of getting shut down because the profit margins are lower — there isn’t enough incentive for multiple companies to compete to produce the drug. Finally, the consolidation of the market makes it more unstable and prone to labor and manufacturing disruptions, especially with foreign market suppliers.

But enough economics. Here are some suggestions of what to do if one of your medications becomes suddenly unavailable.

If There Is a Shortage:

    • Be Proactive: Don’t wait until you’re almost out of your medication to get a refill. Take full advantage of the fact that many insurers allow you to refill a script several days or even weeks in advance. (This will give you more time to try and locate where the medication might be available, or to find alternative solutions.)
    • Do Your Own Research: Check the ASHP and FDA lists linked above to see if there is a known shortage, and whether there is a timeline on when your medication might become available again. You can also use these websites to see whether similar/generic medications are available (that information is listed under each shortage medication.)
    • Avoid Confusion: Call around to see if other pharmacies in your area have the medication available before your doctor calls it in, and ask your doctor to adjust accordingly. (That way you avoid any of the “it’s already filled elsewhere” song and dance.)
    • Pharmacist in a white lab coat is compounded a medication with a mortar and pestleSelf-Advocate: Unfortunately, the person working at the pharmacy counter doesn’t have a lot of incentive to figure out how to save you money. If your pharmacy is offering a similar medication that costs a lot more, for example, contact your prescription insurance company. In the case of a shortage they can often perform a price override. Sometimes this requires you to fill out paperwork to get reimbursed for the price difference.
  • Check for Coupons: There are several ways you can try to save money on prescriptions if you’re stuck paying for a pricier drug. For example, the GoodRx website allows you to enter a medication and it will tell you what it costs at each local pharmacy with a printable coupon.
  • Ask Your Pharmacist for Help: If a drug you have been prescribed isn’t available at nearby pharmacies, ask your doctor or pharmacist if a similar medication is available. For some prescriptions, pharmacists can get approval to compound a medication if it isn’t available elsewhere.

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