Global Supply Chains Affecting Drug Access

 Keenan Blog

Global Supply Chains Affecting Drug Access

June 15, 2022

A wide variety of consumer products have been in short supply during the past two years, with shoppers encountering empty grocery shelves, waiting lists for various electronic devices, and sparse selection at used car lots. Many of these shortages result from manufacturers' inability to source certain materials, components, and even packaging for their products. Now pharmacy customers are learning about some bare shelves behind the wall of their local drug stores. Patients are finding extended waits to refill some prescriptions, receiving less than a full supply, or being forced to change medications due to the unavailability of many pharmaceuticals.

Similarly, medical facilities are suffering from these shortages as well. For example, there is a worldwide shortage of the contrast dye used in computed tomography (CT) scans, forcing facilities to employ conservation tactics from weight-based dosing to completely forgoing its use.

Prescription drugs are a global industry and, therefore, are vulnerable to disruptions in global manufacturing, shipping interruptions, raw materials shortages, and shifts in demand. Factors that have impacted the pharmaceutical industry of course include the coronavirus pandemic. The all-out efforts in producing and distributing COVID vaccines had some effect on manufacturing and shipment of other drugs. The spike in hospitalizations for COVID treatment caused an unexpected demand for intravenous fluids like sterile saline solutions and the tubing needed to administer those fluids. Those essential supplies continue to be in short supply according to the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists. Some drug production has been halted because of a single link in the supply chain, whether it's a key ingredient that cannot be sourced or a lack of glass vials that hold an injectable drug.

The invasion of Ukraine and the imposition of sanctions that have restricted trade between certain regions have also affected pharmaceutical supplies. China is a significant producer of certain drugs and materials necessary for manufacturing pharmaceuticals elsewhere, and that nation's exceptional shutdowns to stem the pandemic have prevented many drug manufacturers from keeping their production lines active.

Drugs are not the only thing in short supply at many pharmacies. The stores themselves are facing staffing difficulties. Unable to keep enough registered pharmacists on duty, even large drug store chains such as CVS and Walgreens have had to close stores or limit their days and hours. The companies are trying to mitigate absences by centralized filling in which prescriptions ordered through local pharmacies are prepared regionally by pharmacists in large warehouse facilities and then shipped to the order location. This has helped alleviate some of the supply issues, but patients need to allow at least an extra day or two to obtain their prescription. Even with centralized filling, the local pharmacy still must have a pharmacist on duty while the pharmacy is open.

What can you as a pharmacy customer do to make sure you have the medication you need? The most effective step you can take is to allow plenty of time before your medication runs out when you order a refill. Giving your pharmacy advance notice will help them assess their channels for obtaining what you need. Using a mail order pharmacy rather than a local pharmacy may also make it easier to obtain scarcer products, but you will need to allow some extra time for shipping. Besides saving you running an extra errand, depending on your insurance coverage, you may pay a lower copayment for your prescription through mail-order.

In some cases, you may need to work with your physicians to switch medications because some products have become unavailable. It is crucial to your health to continue treating any conditions you have, even if the first choice for medication is not easily obtainable. Fortunately, most of the time, there are multiple alternatives. If you have trouble filling your prescription, talk with your doctor to determine the most appropriate option for your situation.

It will take some time before many of the issues causing pharmaceutical shortages can be resolved and some of the problems are likely to be persistent. We encourage you to be a proactive pharmacy consumer so you can stay on track with managing your health. Promptly order refills before your supply runs out. Communicate with your prescribers about any issues in obtaining medication as well as how you are tolerating your medication and its side effects. Never discontinue treatment because your prescription is out of stock; always consult your doctor on the best way to proceed.

About Ju Anderson
Ju Anderson, Vice President, works with health care clients to create an effective strategy to address the health and welfare benefit needs including the financial analysis, implementation, efficacy and performance management of the health plans and other vendors.