Costly drugs, careless words hard to swallow

I wasn’t expecting trouble when I arrived at the drugstore.

We were out of town on a quick trip over the Fourth of July weekend, and my wife was ill and running low on a regular medicine. Her physician had phoned in a prescription to the pharmacy, which was part of a national chain and close to where we were staying.

At the counter, the assistant delivered unexpected news.

They were out of the regular medicine, and a similar version was not in her health plan’s formulary.

And the price of that drug? $339. For a total of nine pills.

It came to $37 a pill. And that’s for a person with good health insurance.

It wasn’t lifesaving medicine, and when I called my wife, she said, “That’s ridiculous.’’ She said she could make it with the remaining pills she had.

I still had to pick up her prescription for nausea medicine, so I told the assistant to forget the expensive pills, that I would just get the nausea medicine. For 30 pills, it was a reasonable $11. If my wife ran out of the other medication, we would buy a couple of pills to tide her over till she got home.

The sticker shock, though, made me reflect on the millions of people who don’t have any drug coverage, or have the bare minimum. What happens when they get sick and need such medication?

The drug companies have assistance programs that can help lower-income people, and there are discounts available. Many free clinics and community health centers can offer some drugs at little or no cost. And generic drugs are tremendously helpful in their low prices. (Here are some tips on buying prescription drugs.)

Still, at 37 bucks a pill, it makes you wonder who’s getting a cut of that deal, and how much.

Now to the second part of this story. While I waited at the counter to remove the expensive prescription from the bill, I heard the pharmacist and the assistant mention the last name of a patient. It was an uncommon name, one easily recognized because of a famous athlete who has it.

They were discussing the patient’s order for two drugs. One I didn’t recognize, but the other I did: Ambien, for sleeping problems.

We were in an area where that particular last name carries a lot of weight. They may not have been discussing the athlete — whom I immediately thought of — but it could have been someone from the same family.

Sometimes I’m tempted to think that too big a deal is made about patient privacy. Much of what a person can overhear at a doctor’s office, for example,  just isn’t worth concealing.

But in this instance, the conversation, loud enough for a customer to hear, was an appalling breach of confidentiality. And that would have been true even if the last name had been Johnson or Smith or Williams . . .  or Miller.

I have seen plenty of medical providers use every precaution to protect names and medical information. It may be a pain for them, and for patients sometimes, but it’s necessary in this day of security breaches.

And sloppy procedures can remind us about the importance of keeping personal health information protected.