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Prescription abandonment is on the rise

Prescription drugs at a pharmacy.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: The merger news of this Tuesday in October is of the pharmaceutical variety: Pfizer is going to shell out more than $3.5 billion to buy King Pharmaceuticals. King makes painkillers, mostly. That's exactly what Pfizer's going to need in the next couple of years, because some of it's biggest blockbusters -- including the cholesterol drug Lipitor -- are about to lose their patent protection. The deal today is one way to soften the expected hit to Pfizer's revenue.

Something else that could be eating into drug company profits? People are walking away from the pharmacy without their meds.

Marketplace's Amy Scott reports.


Amy Scott: A few months ago, Kristen Van Tuyl and her husband went to the pharmacy to pick his asthma inhaler and got this news: His co-pay had quadrupled from $10 to $40.

He's an accountant, she works in fashion. They couldn't really spare the extra money.

Kristen Van Tuyl: He wasn't wheezing so bad he couldn't breathe, so we decided to pass on it.

The drug industry has a word for this -- abandonment. And it's on the rise.

Wolters Kluwer Pharma Solutions tracks prescription drugs. The company says abandoned prescriptions are up 86 percent in the second quarter of this year compared to four years ago.

Jeff Randle practices physical medicine and rehabilitation in Salt Lake City, Utah. He says patients aren't just turning down drugs.

Jeff Randle: I think with the downturn in the economy, I've certainly seen an increase in patients worried about every dollar. I prescribe a lot of physical therapy as well, and I've had quite a bit of patients who can't or won't go to therapy because of the co-pay.

Randle says doctors should consider cost when writing prescriptions, but that can create difficult choices. Randle himself has prescribed a cheaper short-acting pain medication when patients can't afford one that lasts longer.

Randle: When patients feel like they are roller-coastering, when they get a burst of pain relief and then it quickly wanes, there's a chance they'll become more easily addicted to a pain medication.

By saving money now, patients could end up paying for bigger health problems down the road, and researchers say the situation is likely to get worse.

As health care reform cuts into their profits, insurers may pass on more of their costs to patients, leaving more pill bottles abandoned on pharmacy shelves.

I'm Amy Scott for Marketplace.

About the author

Amy Scott is Marketplace’s education correspondent covering the K-12 and higher education beats, as well as general business and economic stories.

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