Photo by Ana Maria Dacol/Creative Commons.

High cost, limited coverage for asthma medicine a concern during COVID-19 pandemic

B.C. man says he skips puffs to save money, but others have it worse

Affordable access to asthma medication is a serious gap in Canada’s healthcare system with dangerous implications during the COVID-19 pandemic, says a B.C. man who suffers from the condition.

Abbotsford’s Fouad Markrout says, although he can afford the cost of his medications, many with asthma will be facing difficult decisions as the country faces a staggering numbers of lay-offs and applications for employment insurance. He says the PharmaCare should be fully covering the medications, at least temporarily.

RELATED: B.C. announces $5 billion financial relief for COVID-19 pandemic

“It’s expensive, it’s so expensive… If your asthma is not controlled, it’s a nightmare. From my experience, if I have a regular flu my life turns to hell… [And] I do use controllers, just imagine if somebody is not,” Markrout said. “Some nights, your face turns blue.”

People will respiratory illnesses are susceptible to complications from COVID-19 infections, yet the cost of asthma controllers have limited coverage under B.C.’s PharmaCare. Any lung infections can trigger an asthma attack, according to Asthma Canada.

Markrout said the cheapest asthma controller available for him costs $120, which is meant to last a month under his recommended dosage of two uses a day. He said asthma patients needs to have a special form signed by a physician, and spend $1,700 on asthma medications per year, before they are eligible for any PharmaCare coverage.

“For me, I’m cheaping out. I do one puff a day because I want it to last forever because I can’t handle $120 a month. I’m a single dad, I’ve got two kids, I pay child support,” he said. “Most people end up using their asthma reliever… “[That’s meant for] if you’re going to die from asthma, it’s going to help you temporarily for an hour or two.”

He’s not alone in his concerns, according to Dr. Menn Biagtan of the BC Lung Association. She said very few asthma medications are fully covered under the Medical Services Plan.

“[Markrout] has pointed out a very important issue, that most asthma patients do not have access,” Biagtan said. “Canadians like us should not be worrying about whether our medication – life-saving medications – will be covered. It should be.”

A poll conducted by Asthma Canada in 2019 shows the lack of coverage and high costs for asthma medications are significant barrier to the 3.8 million Canadians to suffer from it. Almost of third of those surveyed said their current drug coverage was not enough to keep their symptoms under control.

And Canadians living on lower incomes are hurt the most by these costs, according to the poll. For those surveyed making under $19,000 a year, 56 per cent said they rely on the provincial government for the costs (and 30 per cent of this group said they still pay out-of-pocket), 54 per cent said they have skipped filling asthma prescriptions because they couldn’t afford it, and only 11 per cent said their employer’s private plans covered their drug expenses.

A 2019 poll taken by Asthma Canada showing the percentage of people who have skipped filling their asthma prescription because of the cost, based on their income bracket. Asthma Canada.

The BC Lung Association is one of a number of organizations which join every year in Victoria to lobby members of parliament to get affordable medications reviewed, or at least, to be put on the agenda to be reviewed, according to Biagtan.

“It takes so much time for the government to really review all of these medications that should be covered under PharmaCare. Sometimes it take two years,” Biagtan said. “BC Lung Association is competing against other organizations, like the BC Cancer Agency, for the approval of cancer treatments versus asthma treatments.”

“A good example is Singulair. It’s another asthma medication that can be added into the treatment for those people [whose asthma] cannot be controlled with regular medication,” Biagtan said. “It took years before… it was approved by the Food and Drug Administration, [but] it hasn’t been approved for regular coverage.”

For many of these medications, there is not a generic option. After a pharmaceutical company develops a drug and has it approved for use, their drug patent can require 10 to 15 years before a generic brand can be developed, according to Biagtan.

“That is their way to recover the cost of developing that drug,” she said. “People have to have medications that are suited for their conditions, to control the symptoms, and not just what’s available or what’s covered by insurance.”

“How many hospitalizations and deaths could be prevented? How many school or work days are missed because asthma is not controlled?”

RELATED: Kids exposed to household cleaners as newborns more likely to get asthma: B.C. study


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patrick.penner@abbynews.com

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