Taking medications as prescribed by a doctor is an essential to many people’s health, and that means keeping up with refilling those medications when they get low. But with shelter-at-home and social distancing measures in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, you might be thinking twice about venturing out to your local pharmacy.
Luckily, Medicare offers several ways to ensure you obtain the medications you need while minimizing your risk of contracting or spreading the coronavirus. Stay healthy and get the drugs you need with these tips.
How to avoid the pharmacy
Practicing social distancing is hard if your wellbeing depends on prescriptions that may run out soon. But there are ways to avoid a trip to the pharmacy.
Tip: Sign up for mail-order prescriptions
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one of the best ways to slow the spread of COVID-19 is to stay physically isolated from others.1 That makes now the perfect time to switch your prescriptions to a mail-order pharmacy.
Mail-order pharmacies deliver medications right to your door, which is much safer than picking up your prescriptions at your local pharmacy during the pandemic. The US Postal service, CDC, and World Health Organization (WHO) confirm that the likelihood of contracting the coronavirus from a delivered package, even one delivered from abroad, is very low.2
Many Part D and Medicare Advantage plans (if they include Part D prescription drug coverage) cover at least one mail-order prescription service. And several big-name pharmacies, such as CVS and Walgreens, have their own mail-order options. Plus, most services allow you to receive a 90-day supply of most drugs. That means you can stay home—and check off our second tip—in one fell swoop.
Tip: Obtain a larger supply of your medication
If you can’t get mail delivery in time for your next refill, or if your plan doesn’t cover delivery, the next best thing you can do is try to limit your trips to the pharmacy as much as possible. Ask your doctor to prescribe a 90-day supply of your medications instead of the standard 30-day supply.
Normally, insurers have strict rules about how much of certain medications you can receive at any one time. However, the American Pharmacists Association (APhA) has asked insurers to lessen barriers to getting the medicines you need during the coronavirus pandemic, so insurance companies may be more amenable to exceptions right now.3 If your insurance company pushes back, you can work with your doctor to request an exception.
While you’re working with your doctor to make changes to your prescriptions, ask them to help you adjust the timing of your refills, too, so you can take advantage of our third tip.
Tip: Limit your time in-store
If you must brave a trip to the pharmacy, be smart about it. Limit your time in the store and avoid contact with other customers, store associates, and pharmacists. If your pharmacy has a drive-up window, use it whenever possible instead of walking into the store.
Your best bet is to try to time your refills so they become available all at once. If you can do that, you can whittle your pharmacy visits down to once per month—or even once per quarter, if you’re able to obtain 90-day supplies.
If you must walk into the store, call ahead to ensure all your prescriptions are filled and waiting for you. Doing so will help you avoid waiting around in the store and prevent you from having to come back to pick up any prescriptions that aren’t yet ready.
If your prescription is a last-minute one or the pharmacy doesn’t have your medications ready, wait in your car.
How to renew a prescription
The above tips are great for refilling your existing medicines. But what if you’ve maxed out your refills and need to renew a prescription? Good news: You may be able to obtain a renewal without venturing into your doctor’s office.
Tip: Take advantage of new refill rules
In response to the coronavirus pandemic, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has waived prescription refill limits.4 So if your prescription is about to run out soon, you might be able to receive one or more additional refills anyway.
You can ask your pharmacist to request the prescription, and it may go through automatically. If not, you can try contacting your doctor or insurance company. So keep an eye on your refill numbers and start this process early if you can.
If you can’t obtain a renewal without a doctor’s appointment, you could use our next tip to fulfill that requirement while remaining in isolation.
Tip: Use telehealth to “visit” your doctor
If you have a Medicare Advantage plan, you may have noticed the recent addition of some high-tech benefits. One of them: the option for a virtual appointment with your doctor. These visits are done via video chat over the internet and are a form of telehealth.
If you want to learn more, check out our Medicare Telehealth article.
While some Medicare Advantage plans already offered virtual doctor visits, all Medicare beneficiaries now have access to this service. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the CMS has mandated that any virtual doctor visits will be covered the same way an in-person visit would be. If your copay for an in-person appointment is $20, it will also be $20 for a telehealth appointment.
For complex health concerns, video chatting with your doctor may not be an effective way to receive an accurate diagnosis and effective treatment. But if the purpose of your visit is simply to renew a prescription, a virtual visit could be the best way to achieve that goal without leaving your home.
Don’t ration your medications
The coronavirus pandemic is changing far more than your health care. It’s also affecting the stock market, employment rates, and people’s budgets. You may also have anxiety about leaving the house, even for something as important as medication.
When times are tough, and you need to tighten your belt or hole up at home, it’s tempting to ration everything: food, toilet paper, bottled water, etc. But don’t do that with your prescriptions.
For one thing, many prescriptions lose efficacy, create serious health issues, or even cause death if you don’t take them as prescribed. Skipping a dose of insulin could be deadly for a person with diabetes, for example.
For another, your body likely needs all your prescriptions to remain healthy. And maintaining your health is more important now than ever. According to the World Health Organization, older adults and those with preexisting medical conditions are more likely to become seriously ill from the new coronavirus than young people without preexisting conditions.5
If you back off your medications without consulting your doctor first, you could give COVID-19 an advantage over you. Exhaust all resources—such as those below—before rationing your medications.
Tip: Get financial help
If you’re in a low income bracket, you may qualify for a program called Extra Help, which helps Medicare beneficiaries pay for their prescriptions. The Social Security Administration (SSA) can help you find out if you qualify. Many pharmacies also offer loyalty or discount programs, so check with your local provider.
If you don’t qualify for medication-specific help, you may be eligible for aid for other expenses, which could free up cash to cover your prescriptions. Many aid programs are ramping up operations during the COVID-19 pandemic because plenty of people are struggling right now.
Often, these programs are local, so look for the following types of resources in your area:
- Food banks and senior meal services
- Suspended utility and internet shut-offs for those with past-due bills
- Suspended ability to evict renters who get behind on rent
- To find out what’s available to you, check your city’s website.
Tip: Seek community support
If faced with the choice of potentially exposing yourself to COVID-19 or rationing your medications, seek help before making a decision. Ask a young, healthy neighbor or friend to pick up your prescription for you, or talk to a local community-service organization, such as a nearby branch of Catholic Charities. Consider consulting with your doctor or calling your insurance company to see what they suggest.
Asking for help may feel awkward, especially if you pride yourself on your independence like I do. But truly, we’re all in this together. It’s in every individual’s best interest to keep those in their community healthy so we can slow the spread of the new coronavirus. Let’s get back to living full, social lives with the people we love—and finding toilet paper at the grocery store again.
1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “How to Protect Yourself”
2. United State Postal Service, “USPS Statement on Coronavirus”
3. American Pharmacists Association, “APhA Urges Insurers, PBMs to Immediately Remove Barriers on Prescription Drug Refills for Coronavirus”
4. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, “Information Related to Coronavirus Disease 2019 – COVID-19”
5. World Health Organization, “Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Advice for the Public: Myth Busters”