How to Stockpile Medications in Case of an Emergency

There is a Safe and an Unsafe Way to Do It

You've seen it before: the empty shelves in the grocery store after people hear a big storm is on the way. There is an instinct to gather all the resources you can in case you are home bound for any length of time. However, the millions of Americans on prescription medications have more to worry about than food and water. Will they have enough medication to weather an emergency? Will they be able to pick up their refills on time? What can they do to be sure they have the medications they need when they need them?

Why People Stockpile Medications

People are afraid that there will be drug shortages in the case of an emergency. Whether it's a natural disaster like a hurricane or the spread of an infectious disease like COVID-19, people want to be prepared so they can stay as healthy as possible in the aftermath.

It is human nature to want to protect yourself and your loved ones. However, it is also important to be rational about your decisions. Hoarding medications, depending on how it's done, can be costly and even dangerous. It is important to understand the nature of the situation you are facing and to take a close look at the risks versus benefits of stockpiling medications.

Ways to Stockpile Medications

There are different ways people stockpile medications, but these may be the most common:

  • Refilling prescriptions early

  • Paying for extra prescriptions

  • Rationing medications

When considering these options, keep in mind you do not want to needlessly stockpile medications. Medications have expiration dates. Also, it is possible that the dose of your medication could change in the future, making the stockpiled medication superfluous. It may be reasonable to consider a one-month supply as a back-up but doing more than that could be potentially wasteful.

Get Early Refills

You cannot refill your medications whenever you want. Your healthcare provider has to write a prescription, your insurance company has to then approve the prescription for coverage, and your pharmacy (local or mail-order) has to dispense the medication. Underlying all this are federal rules about the frequency of medication refills as well as rules set by your health plan.

The Academy of Managed Care Pharmacy recommends pharmacists refill medications no sooner than after 75% of the prescription has been used.

In simple terms, a non-controlled medication can be refilled as early as seven days before a 30-day supply runs out and 21 days before a 90-day supply runs out. Some pharmacies and insurers restrict refills to two days before the refill is due whether it's a 30-day or 90-day prescription.

Due to their addictive potential, federal regulations put a tighter time restriction for refills of controlled medications.Schedule III and Schedule IV medications, like codeine (III) or Valium (IV), cannot be filled sooner than two days before a 30-day supply runs out.

If you refill your non-controlled medication seven days early every month, you will have accumulated an extra six-week supply after six months, and a three-month supply after one year. This is one way to stockpile medications. However, some insurance companies will not refill medications based on cumulative early refills. They will claim that you have enough medication and will not approve a refill until the dispensed quantity of medication is used.

There may be valid reasons to get an early prescription refill. Perhaps you lost your medication or are going away on vacation. Perhaps your mail-order delivery will not arrive in time and you would otherwise be forced to miss doses. In situations like these, you may be able to ask your doctor or pharmacist for an emergency refill. Some health plans may even have provisions for "travel exceptions" and "emergency exceptions" that override their usual prescription rules. Otherwise, your doctor will need to make a plea to the insurer directly to cover any early refills.

If you are unable to reach your doctor for any reason, your pharmacist can usually provide a three-day supply if a medication is deemed medically necessary. You could also consider seeking care at an urgent care clinic to get a short-term emergency prescription written by a healthcare provider until your own doctor is available.

It may be enticing to stockpile medications in case of an emergency but take care. There are safe and unsafe ways to go about it. You can try to work with your doctor and insurer to get an emergency refill. What you should not do is ration your medications to save them for later. Your health is too important to put at risk that way.

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