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Planning for Prescription Drugs During the Coronavirus Outbreak

Keeping extra medicine on hand is recommended for people with chronic conditions

Pills that arrive in the mail

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En español | As more communities across the country report cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, public health experts are advising older adults and those with chronic health conditions to stock up on their prescription drugs in case an outbreak keeps people home for a prolonged time.

The advice may seem easier said than done, given that pharmacies and prescription plans typically have rules on when patients can refill their medications. But in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, some of these rules are starting to relax.


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"We're getting the message out to the insurance companies and pharmacy benefit managers that they need to look at their procedures and help these patients who want to make sure that they have an adequate supply,” said Ilisa Bernstein, senior vice president of pharmacy practice and government affairs at the American Pharmacists Association.

In the past week, several insurance companies have pledged to waive prescription refill limits on “maintenance medications.” And with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cautioning people at high risk for COVID-19 to avoid crowds and sick people, CVS Pharmacy says it will waive charges associated with home delivery of prescription medications.

How much extra medicine should you have on hand?

It's always a good idea to keep backup supplies of lifesaving medication on hand, whether planning for a potential coronavirus outbreak or any other emergency situation, said Irwin Redlener, a pediatrician and director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University.


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Standard emergency preparedness guidelines call for three days’ worth of supplies, including food, water and prescription medicine. “But I think we're now talking about people having a two-week supply,” Redlener said, referencing the quarantine timelines health officials have so far implemented for the coronavirus.

If you live in an urban area where delivery services are available and not disrupted, you may not need to stock up on much medication. “But most places in the country will not have that ability,” and those residents will need to plan, Redlener added.

In AARP's live Coronavirus Information Tele-Town Hall on Tuesday, Brett P. Giroir, an assistant secretary for health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, discouraged excessive stockpiling of medications but recommended having a healthy supply in reserve.

"Make sure you have, if you can, a good month or more of medications — a couple of months — to keep you out of the doctor's office,” Giroir said.

How to keep adequate supplies on hand

If you want a reserve of prescription medication at home, start by talking to your doctor, said Robert McLean, a rheumatologist and president of the American College of Physicians. It's possible your physician could bump up your prescription from a 30-day supply to a 90-day supply. Then, call your pharmacy to make sure it can fill it.

If you don't have access to a larger supply and want to refill your medication before the refill date, call your prescription plan and explain your situation, Bernstein suggested. The insurer may be able to type in a code to alert the pharmacist that an early refill has been approved. Note, however, that early refills often are not available for controlled substances.

If your insurer denies your refill request, don't be afraid to “make some noise” and advocate for yourself, said Redlener, who added that government officials and advocacy organizations also can play a role in making sure people have access to the lifesaving supplies they need in case of an emergency.

Finally, consider filling your prescriptions with a mail-order service, McLean said. This method may not bulk up your reserves, but it will ensure your prescription is refilled on time and without a trip out in public.

Don't forget about over-the-counter drugs

Prescription medications aren't the only drugs to stock up on for emergency situations. In the case of the coronavirus, experts say over-the-counter medicines that treat the symptoms of the illness (fever, cough and shortness of breath) are also important to keep on hand.

McLean recommended grabbing an extra bottle or two of a fever-reducing drug, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), plus a cough suppressant like Robitussin. “They're not magic, but they can help a lot,” he said.

If you have questions about how over-the-counter medicines may interact with your routine drug regimen, ask the pharmacist, Bernstein said. “All over-the-counter drugs aren't appropriate for all patients,” she added.

The CDC also recommends that high-risk individuals stock up on household supplies such as tissues and groceries if delivery options are limited. Redlener pointed to nonperishable items such as shelf-stable milk as a good option. And if you have children living in the house, keep diapers and other baby supplies on hand, and make sure older kids have access to activities and schoolwork.

"But the most important thing, by far, is the medication,” Redlener added.

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