During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, people with chronic health conditions like asthma, unfortunately, experienced some shortages on their medications.
Albuterol is an essential quick-relief (rescue) medication that asthma patients need to treat asthma symptoms and ease breathing by opening airways during an asthma attack. Those with asthma know to always keep nearby a metered-dose inhaler that contains a short-acting beta agonist like albuterol. Without an emergency medicine like an albuterol MDI, airways can become inflamed during an asthma attack, making it hard to breathe. An uncontrolled asthma attack can result in death. In fact, 10 people die every day from asthma in the United States. It affects more than 25 million Americans. It’s also the leading chronic disease in children and the third-ranking cause of hospitalization among children ages 15 and under.
During a time of heightened anxiety in the asthma community, it is comforting to know that many stakeholders in our health care system are working to protect patients from potential drug treatment shortages. While there were initial reports of albuterol shortages in the United States during the COVID-19 global outbreak, members of the prescription drug supply chain, groups representing patients, drug manufacturers, health plan sponsors and pharmacy benefit managers, along with federal regulators, all closely monitored the availability of medications.
Key stakeholders quickly responded to these initial albuterol shortages by identifying new supply and making adjustments to reduce barriers to access, thereby limiting any serious health impacts on asthma patients. For their part, PBMs — part of the health care system that assists patients in utilizing prescription drug benefits — have provided preferred or lower cost-sharing on albuterol for patients. Some PBMs have helped patients access albuterol by lowering formulary requirements and giving pharmacies flexibility in filling prescriptions.
We hope this collaboration on behalf of patients continues. Looking ahead, we are already experiencing a major surge in new COVID-19 cases throughout the nation. A still-dangerous “second wave” is projected just as kids are expected to head back to school and before the flu season begins this fall. Access to albuterol is crucially important and front-of-mind for parents of asthma patients who want to know if their children will have the inhalers they need as school systems across the country determine if it will be safe for kids to return to in-person learning. We hope that lessons learned and the same cooperation among groups who share a vested interest in how the supply chain operates continues.
As patients look ahead at their own needs, they can reach out to their PBM to seek guidance or information on treatment options. Patients can also find out how their specific health plan and PBM are handling potential shortages on prescription drugs, including albuterol. PBM staff and care managers are standing by to help explain the options available to patients. Information for contacting pharmacy benefit staff can be found on the back of insurance cards.
Lastly, we strongly urge patients with asthma to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations:
- Stock up on supplies of prescription drugs (a 14- to 30-day supply).
- For children required to return to in-person learning at school, fill their prescriptions in the summer before school starts. Check expiration dates so you know how long that medicine will last at school before you need to refill again.
- Take steps to keep at least a 6-foot distance from others.
- Avoid people who are sick, limit close contact and wash your hands often.
- Avoid crowds as much as possible.
- Avoid nonessential travel.
- Clean and disinfect your home and car regularly, especially items you touch often like doorknobs, light switches, cellphones, car door handles, and steering wheels.
During this pandemic, all stakeholders must maintain the same level of cooperation so patients can have confidence that the health care system can meet patient needs.
Kenneth Mendez is the president and CEO of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. JC Scott is the president and CEO of the Pharmaceutical Care Management Association.
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