Ban on prescription rewards is a bigger deal than you might think for some Alberta families

prescriptionBy Becky Benoit

Nobody likes standing in line at the pharmacy to pick up prescriptions, but it’s a necessary evil. When I have to go pick up my husband’s cholesterol medication or my daughter’s inhalers, I usually go to Safeway. It’s convenient to be able to grab a few groceries while I’m waiting, and it’s also nice to rack up another Airmile or two when I pay for my purchase. Slowly but surely, my Airmiles account balance creeps upwards, and one of these days, I might even have enough for a flight to Edmonton. Right now, I could make it about as far as Mariana Lake before running out and having to parachute down.

For my sister, getting those few Airmiles when she picks up her prescriptions is a considerably bigger deal. My nephew Graham, who was born with a genetic disorder, has a dizzying area of medical needs. His list of monthly prescriptions is as long as my grocery list, and includes all sorts of medications, from a broad-spectrum antibiotic to protect his fragile, compromised immune system to a bronchodilator to open up his airway, given in the form of a nebulizer to help him breathe.

The family’s insurance company pays for the lion’s share of the prescriptions, but not all of them, and with a list as lengthy and complex as this one, the monthly out-of-pocket expense for prescriptions alone is considerable. And then there are all the other expenses that come along with having a child with complicated medical needs, such as suction catheters and soft absorbent pads for his feeding tubes. This month, the family will see a bill of $5,000 for a new wheelchair, plus the cost of building a ramp onto the house.

The expenses are high, and yet somehow my sister and brother-in-law make it work on one income. There isn’t a daycare in their city that would consider taking Graham, so my sister remains a stay-at-home mom, a role she took on at Graham’s birth. One day, when Graham is in school full-time, she hopes to return to her work as a hairdresser, but that day is definitely far in the future. For now, her full-time job is keeping her son healthy, teaching him sign language and helping him overcome the vast obstacles put in his way by fate.

As you can imagine, there’s little room left in the family budget for travel. My sister has been saving up her Airmiles, like a squirrel carefully tucking away seeds for the winter, hoping to save enough to take her husband and son on a longed-for vacation, the first they’ve ever taken as an entire family. It will take a long time, years maybe, but time is something she’s got in spades.

The Alberta College of Pharmacists plans to enact a ban on May 1 that would forbid the issuing of reward points, such as Airmiles at Safeway or Shoppers’ Optimum Points at Shoppers Drug Mart, for the purchase of prescriptions. It’s for the safety of patients, the College argues, claiming that people are renewing prescriptions earlier than needed, or purchasing prescriptions they don’t really need at all, just to get the points. It’s for the safety of the patients, the College says.

Frankly, that argument does not hold water. I find it hard to believe that anyone, no matter how much they might want to earn a free trip, would go to all the trouble of filling prescriptions they didn’t need, possibly paying out of pocket for the portion not covered by their insurance, waiting in line and wasting everyone’s time and money, for a couple of measly Airmiles or points? The idea is simply ludicrous.

And in the case of people who fill many prescriptions per month – seniors, those who are chronically ill, people with special needs or whose children have special needs – the idea that they would take advantage of the system simply to get more Airmiles is even more laughable. As my sister acridly points out, she doesn’t enjoy filling a laundry list of prescriptions each month; it’s a matter of necessity, a life-or-death need. What she’d like most of all, worth more than all the Airmiles in the world, is a healthy child who doesn’t need anything stronger than a multivitamin.

For families like mine, who fill only one or two prescriptions a month, losing the rewards is an annoyance, a punishment that seems silly but doesn’t really impact me much. For families like my sister’s, losing the chance to collect rewards for those dozen or more prescriptions she fills each month is a big deal. It’s one more thing her family will have to do without, one less trip to dream about, one less future event to hang her hopes on.

I can only hope, for the sake of families like hers, that Sobeys Inc. wins the legal challenge is says it will file in response to the College of Pharmacists’ decision. Otherwise, this ban is a prescription for dashed hopes for many families in Alberta who have seen enough of that already.