Olson: Sticker shock at the pharmacy counter

I’ve been a generally healthy person – if not in my habits, at least in my physical condition – essentially my entire life.

It’s been a blessing, one that I admittedly take for granted until I wind up feeling like I did most of last week. I was sick as a dog. Go-to-the-doctor sick.

The nurse practitioner told me I had strep throat – a first for me –  and prescribed antibiotics. That is how I found myself waiting at a pharmacy counter in Sycamore, eager to get my hands on some pills.

While I was there, I overheard a pharmacist tell a man that the prescription he wanted would cost about $1,000.

“And that’s the generic,” the pharmacist said.

Another couple was told the drugs they needed would cost more than $400. It looked like they wanted to think it over.

As a generally healthy person, you hear about how expensive prescription drugs are, but when it’s something you never experience, it’s almost an abstract concept.

These were real numbers. A thousand bucks. Four hundred. The kind of bills you brace for when your car or refrigerator breaks down.

I don’t know who those people were, if they had insurance, or what they were prescribed. There are all kinds of prescription meds out there, it’s true – some keep you alive, others fix “bedroom issues,” or help you lose weight or quit smoking.

But even if you have health coverage, you can find yourself hit with some serious out-of-pocket expenses for lifesaving medicines.

A study released this year by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that Medicare Part D enrollees who don’t receive low-income subsidies can average more than $8,000 a year in out-of-pocket costs if they’re taking “specialty tier” drugs to treat serious conditions such as various types of cancer, hepatitis C, multiple sclerosis or rheumatoid arthritis.

Regardless of why someone needs prescription medication, odds are that in America, they’ll pay more for it – about double what people in many countries pay, and more than in any developed country.

As a result, some people skip medications – even people with health insurance – because they are too expensive. Some also skip some medical treatment.

There’s an election coming up, and we are going to hear a lot of talk from a lot of different quarters about how to fix this situation – just as we did in 2018.

What people say is far less important than what they do, and the problem of high prescription drug costs – and health care costs in general – hasn’t been fixed.

I got off easy last week. The antibiotics I needed cost me a $25 copay. A doctor’s office visit cost an additional $15. But that’s not the reality for everyone.

There’s a reason why health care was the No. 1 issue in the 2018 congressional election. U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood’s focus on the issue during the 2018 campaign was a big part of the reason she unseated U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren in the 14th Congressional District.

Underwood visited with several of our editors, including me, earlier this month. We talked about the issue. She listed a number of proposals, some that have passed the House, aimed at ending tactics companies use to keep generic medicine off the market and trying to close the infamous “doughnut hole” that confronts Medicare beneficiaries.

She blamed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for not taking up the proposals.

Ah, yes, politics. The Legislature is divided, there’s an election coming, and both sides are jockeying to cast themselves as the good guys and the other side as the bad guys.

Meanwhile, people at pharmacy counters in DeKalb County and around the country are paying a lot for medicine. Access to health care in general and prescription drugs in particular is a pocketbook issue. It’s a quality-of-life issue. It’s a critical issue.

It’s an issue that won’t be solved without collaboration between the two parties – at least, not permanently. It’s something we as voters should push for.

Darcy Tellone, the mother of an 11-year-old girl with Type 1 diabetes, spoke for a lot of people at an event this summer about the cost of diabetes drugs.

“There’s all this talk, but there’s no action, and so it’s very, very frustrating,” said Tellone of Yorkville. “That’s just something that I can’t bear to see anymore.”

• Eric Olson is general manager of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841, ext. 2257, email or follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.

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