Well, That’s One Way to Increase Health Care Costs
On Tuesday, Gov. Jay Nixon announced his first priority for the coming legislative session: Requiring prescriptions for medicines that contain pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient used in meth production. If the governor’s recommendation is put into place, Missourians will no longer have relatively easy access to many cold medicines, including Sudafed.
Gosh, it was only a year ago when U.S. senators and representatives were debating provisions of a large-scale, mostly unread health care bill. One of the biggest issues at the time prompting the discussion of health care policy was the concern that U.S. health care costs are rapidly increasing, for both the government and the private sector.
Nixon’s proposal flies in the face of previous and current attempts to decrease health care costs. Requiring residents to see a doctor to obtain a prescription for, say, Sudafed vastly increases the cost for both individuals and health insurers.
For example, if I am sick tomorrow and need nasal decongestant, I will head to the nearest Walgreens and pick up the generic version of Sudafed for about $5. The entire process will take me less than 15 minutes. However, if I am sick in the future and the prescription requirement has been implemented, the additional cost to obtain medicine will include a visit to my doctor. The monetary cost to me could still be relatively low, if I have a low co-pay, but if I am uninsured, have a high co-pay, or a high-deductible health insurance policy, I may have to pay a great deal more. Meanwhile, my health insurance provider will pay whatever cost that I don’t, resulting in — all else being equal — higher health insurance premiums. All for the privilege of seeing a doctor. Because the state says so.
Now, I know that some, including the governor and Attorney General Chris Koster, will argue that these increased costs are worth it if meth-related accidents decrease. But this ignores that a number of other state laws have already been implemented specifically to eliminate meth production (and access to decongestant). The governor, in his press release, enumerates other restrictions already in place:
By law, pseudoephedrine must now be sold behind a pharmacy counter and buyers are limited to purchasing no more than 3.6 grams, or 120 standard tablets in a 24 hour period, and 9 grams, or 300 standard tablets, in a 30-day period. On Sept. 28, a new state rule took effect, giving authority to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) to work with law enforcement and pharmacies on a new database that automatically blocks over the limit sales of pseudoephedrine and allows law enforcement agencies to track pseudoephedrine purchases in real time.
So, Missouri government already limits the purchase of pseudoephedrine, restricts where it can be sold, and tracks those who purchase the drug. What else can the state do, short of making nasal decongestant illegal?
In fact, a good example of these policies at work can be found in Oregon, one of two states that have enacted prescription requirements for pseudoephedrine. According to Oregon’s Narcotics Enforcement Association, in late 2004, the state began requiring photo identification from purchasers of medicine containing pseudoephedrine, and the state required that those medicines be sold behind the counter. In 2005, the state tightened these restrictions, requiring the medicines to be sold behind pharmacy counters, and began tracking purchasers of the medicines. Those restrictions led to a dramatic decrease in the annual number of “meth lab incidents.”
In 2004, Oregon reported 448 meth lab incidents. In 2006, the count was down to 63.
But that wasn’t low enough for Oregon. In July 2006, a new rule was set: Medicines containing pseudoephedrine could only be purchased with a prescription. And that odious requirement, which almost certainly has pushed up health care costs in Oregon, appears to have resulted in the elimination of roughly 40 meth incidents per year (Oregon now has about 20 each year).
There are a few things I don’t know, but suspect may be at work. First, how do we know that Oregon’s policies have stamped out dangerous drug-related incidents? It may be that Oregon’s pseudoephedrine restrictions have merely encouraged meth producers to produce different illegal drugs instead. Furthermore, these numbers are for recent years. In the future, meth producers may figure out a way of acquiring pseudoephedrine that will bypass the restrictions.
All the while, more Oregonians have to go to the doctor in order to obtain cold medicine. Is the cost of their time and the resulting increase in health care costs worth it? I don’t think so.
Rapidly increasing health care costs are not a new problem. From our most recent three U.S. presidents:
Former President Bill Clinton:
Small businesses will continue to face skyrocketing premiums and a full third of small businesses now covering their employees say they will be forced to drop their insurance. Large corporations will bear bigger disadvantages in global competition, and health care costs will devour more and more and more of our budget.
Former President George W. Bush:
We share a common goal: making health care more affordable and accessible for all Americans. The best way to achieve that goal is by expanding consumer choice, not government control.
Then there’s the problem of rising cost. We spend one and a half times more per person on health care than any other country, but we aren’t any healthier for it. This is one of the reasons that insurance premiums have gone up three times faster than wages. It’s why so many employers — especially small businesses — are forcing their employees to pay more for insurance, or are dropping their coverage entirely.
Regulations and restrictions like the prescription requirement proposed are certainly part of the health care cost problem. I hope Missouri’s governor will realize that, and withdraw his proposal.