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Simitian Proposes County Cut Costs for Life-Saving Medication


SAN JOSE – Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously today on to direct County staff to investigate the opportunities and costs associated with subsidizing select life-saving medication for residents of Santa Clara County. 

The three subsidized medications are insulin (for diabetes), epinephrine auto-injectors/EpiPens (for anaphylactic allergic reactions), and asthma inhalers (for asthma attacks). Under Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian’s proposal Valley Medical Center, Better Health Pharmacy, and other partners would be responsible for distributing these medications. 

“Insulin, EpiPens and inhalers are not a nice-to-have, but a have-to-have,” said Simitian. “The debate about the high cost of prescription drugs is a complicated one,” said Simitian. “But I know this, no one should have to break the bank in order to afford life-saving medication.” 

In the last ten years alone, the price of insulin has tripled, with the average monthly cost topping $450 in 2016.  A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association in January of 2019 notes that as many as one in four people with diabetes are cutting back on their doses or skipping them altogether to save money.  The results can be fatal. 

“Type 1 diabetes requires intensive insulin therapy in order to stay healthy. Without it, our children may develop complications like blindness, heart disease and lower leg amputations later in life,” said Alan Kissick, Executive Director of Northern California, American Diabetes Association. “People with diabetes, and their families, have enough to worry about. We are pleased to support this plan that provides access to this life-saving medication.”

Annie Wu, Community Impact Manager for the American Heart Association agreed saying, “Lack of medication affordability threatens to have long-term effects on patients’ health, and risks exacerbating disparities of care by placing many drugs beyond the financial reach of low-income and average-wage families.”

Diabetes, severe allergies, and asthma are chronic, lifelong conditions that are common, and can be well-managed with proper medication, but that can also be catastrophic if not effectively addressed.

These conditions also have something else in common: the costs of their respective medications have skyrocketed in recent years. EpiPens can cost upwards of $650 for a package of just two injectors, and the generic version of the drug still costs $300. The price of asthma inhalers has increased similarly.  

Many residents either have insurance that mostly or completely covers their costs, or, they have access to government programs that provide a similar subsidy. However, an increasing number of people with high-deductible insurance plans find themselves paying hundreds or thousands of dollars per month for the medications they need to keep themselves alive. They are “the missing middle” of health care, unable to take advantage of government programs, but also without access to better health insurance.

“We know that deferred preventative measures lead to costly emergency room and inpatient care,” said Luisa Buada, Chief Executive Officer at Ravenswood Family Health Center. “Improving access to life-saving medications is vital for the wellbeing of our middle and low-income families and a prudent economic investment in public healthcare.” 

Santa Clara County has already tackled the lack of affordable medication working with SIRUM, a local non-profit that collects unused medication from local pharmacies and nursing homes, and delivers them to Better Health Pharmacy for distribution to uninsured and underinsured. In 2019 alone, the County’s Better Health Pharmacy dispensed 31,940 prescriptions, a significant increase over 24,123 prescriptions in 2018. The County’s drug redistribution program operates pursuant to legislation authored by Simitian when he served in the State Senate. 

As Simitian envisions it, the County’s new effort would distribute insulin, epinephrine auto-injectors, and asthma inhalers and distribute them at reduced cost through County-run pharmacies and other health care partners throughout the County to ensure coverage.

“In addition to the obvious public health benefits, this program will to some degree pay for itself,” said Simitian. “Making it easier for individuals to access the medication they need will reduce costs across the board.”

Emergency room visits are one of the leading reasons for high healthcare costs in the County. “People go to the ER when they don’t know where to go,” said Simitian. “Residents having access to the medications they need is one way we as a County can cut those costs while saving lives.” 

County staff will present their findings to the County’s Health and Hospital Committee, chaired by Simitian, in March of this year. 

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