Breaking down brown bagging Officials weigh pros, cons of alternate way to obtain drugs

North Charleston resident Bonnie Smith attempted to buy her medication from an outside source and then have her doctors overlook it before administering it. The method is known as brown bagging and health experts are divided on its viability.

A practice called “brown bagging” is gaining popularity among patients who need to save money on their medications.

But some health care providers call the practice unsafe and say it forces them to provide free services.

Typically, patients who try brown bagging get their medicine straight from a drug company. They bring the free or discounted medicine to their doctor’s office and the doctor reviews the drug before prescribing it. The practice is primarily used by cancer patients, whose medicine may cost upwards of $100,000 a year.

But brown bagging has been gaining traction among other patients, too, prompting the National Association of Boards of Pharmacies to pass a resolution about the practice last month. The group wants to conduct a study on brown bagging to “ensure appropriate regulatory oversight” and to protect patients.

Bonnie Smith, who lives in North Charleston, recently looked into brown bagging on her own.

“Anybody who gets into a situation where their drugs are too expensive, I would definitely tell them to do some research and see if they can get them at a more affordable cost,” said Smith, who found out a few months ago that her pancreatic cancer had come back after four years in remission.

Her tumor is inoperable, so her doctor recommended a monthly shot of Sandostatin LAR Depot, a drug that treats the tumor and allows Smith to avoid chemotherapy.

But after her United Healthcare insurance policy kicked in, Smith would have had to pay $645 per dosage out of pocket, an amount she said she could not afford.

She started searching for cheaper options and eventually spoke with officials from Novartus, the manufacturer of the drug. The company told her it would give the drug to her for free for one year, without going through the insurance company.

But when Smith told staffers at Trident Health, they said they don’t allow brown bagging.

In a prepared statement, a Trident Health pharmacist said that medication brought from home cannot be used in the hospital unless the drug cannot be obtained by the in-house pharmacy within a reasonable time frame.

Heather Easterling, the director of pharmacy services at the Medical University of South Carolina, said MUSC also discourages the practice. Pharmacists and nurses aren’t reimbursed for their services when patients bring their own medicine, she said.

“More importantly, there is no guarantee of the integrity of the supply of medication,” Easterling said. “We can prepare these medications in a permitted and regulated clean room and safely give these medications to patients.”

Smith was eventually able to get the drug for free after applying for financial assistance through Trident Health. But her experience left her wondering why brown bagging isn’t talked about more.

“It seems like it can be a lifesaver for people if the right precautions are taken,” she said.