Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Necessary Medication and Politics: The Devastation Falls on Patients

Last week I received a phone call from my pharmacy telling me that my insurance no longer covers my MS disease modifying medication. One year ago, I read an article about expected price increases for MS disease modifying medications that were insane given the history of MS medications.  Tonight, the President says yet again that reducing high drug prices is one of the top priorities of his administration.  Neither he nor congress (both parties) have made any progress on this with any results.  I don’t know and can’t figure out what the strategy is to accomplish this.  I hope they can, but I fear it will be on the backs of individual patients.  I fear we’ll lose medication options and our doctors will not be at liberty to prescribe what is appropriate for us. While congress and pharmaceutical companies bicker, we as patients will suffer the consequences from lack of care and disease progression.  

The medication I take is one of the first ones to come on the market in 1996.  It came in a dosage of seven injections per week. In 2015 they came out with a version that is three injections per week and has a new patent with all of the benefits that come with precluding generics and competition. Same formula, different dosage.  Both are astronomical expense.  Generic is $60,000 per year. Non-generic runs $73,000-$89,000. My insurance has covered it for the last nine years and has now decided it won’t cover it at all – name brand or generic. All of the other medications cost more.  

I’m now in the position of needing to work with my doctor to try new medications to replace the one that’s been out the longest and has worked for me.  In order to alleviate problems I was having with seven injections per week, I tried two medications a few years ago and ended up with non-stop nausea from one and hives all over my body from the other. It’s daunting to embark on this effort when I have a lot of other things going on in my life to tackle.  Regardless, I’ll do it. Living without proven medications isn’t an option for me.  Hundreds of years have proven that when living with MS going without medication leads to faster disease progression and disability.  It’s not worth the risk.

Know that pharmaceutical companies are making big profits for their stakeholders.  They don’t have a track record of reducing prices to the customer over time. When I started with this medication, it was $36,000 per year. Last year it was $76,000 per year. They claimed years ago that the price would go down once a generic was available, but it hasn’t.  And now, I’m told that my insurance won’t cover it at all. Same medication, different politics.

The medication I take is the least effective and has the fewest side effects.  It works for me. I haven’t had a relapse in six years. Yet now I’ll need to try medications that have higher efficacy and more severe side effects including liver damage and even death for some.  It’s scary and I think reasonably so.  My approach has been to take a medication that works with the least side effects.  Insurance is not going to allow me to do that anymore. 

I have three months of medication in my refrigerator to tide me over. I have this because over the course of two years I've stretched my medications to allow a stockpile.  I'd prepared for emergencies and wanted to be covered if I wasn't able to get my prescription filled. I’ll see my neurologist in a few weeks and will discuss my options.  Until then, I’ll do my research to see what my options are.  Options I’ve identified are:
  1. Appeal the insurance decision.  I appealed and won a couple years ago.  It took six months with no guarantee that I would win.  I went without any medication for six months. It was worrisome and frustrating, and that’s not conducive to good health when trying to reduce stress.  I did it, but I’m not sure I’m up for it again right now.
  2. Go without medication.  Before these medications were available, people with MS were likely to be disabled needing walking assistance within ten years of diagnosis.  I’m at year nine and doing well. Going without is not an option, and I don’t think I should be expected to go without.  Please also know that cost of care for me will be much higher if I’m in a wheelchair, can’t work and live with all of the associated health problems that come with disability. 
  3. Find a new medication.  I’ve tried two in the past that caused such misery they were not an option for me.  Insurance companies want to treat all patients the same, and we’re just not.  What works for one person doesn’t work for another.  What helps one person causes severe side effects for another. We need to keep trying different medications each time one doesn’t work, and we hope we don't run out of options.  One I tried for nine months before giving up. Another took six weeks before my body broke out in hives and I had to cease taking it.  Each time I try a new medication, it takes months to get approved and use it before I’ll know if it’s going to work for me.
I’ll work on finding a new medication.  I’m frustrated and not looking forward to this.  Yet, here I am.  I work, I have good insurance, and I live in a prosperous country.  I should be in a good position on this, and I get that I have it better than a lot of people on earth.  But don’t overestimate our good fortune in the US.  Other countries have figured this out better than we have.  Let’s learn from them. Enough said.

On February 28, 2018, I wrote a follow up post. Read Part 2 of my pharmaceutical medication denial and decision reversal Necessary Medications and Politics: Part 2


  1. Have you sent a copy of this to Mike Kreidler, ournstate insurance commissioner? Youbhave been very careful not to name your insirance company...but will calling them out on social media be effective? How else can I help, you??

    1. Thank you for the suggestion, Kathleen. I hadn’t considered that. I’ll keep working through my insurance, my doctor and the medication manufacturer until I’ve exhausted my options or decided something else will be right for me now. I’ll definitely keep your suggestion in mind as I proceed.