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A new report from AARP suggests more than a quarter of South Carolina residents have stopped taking their prescription medications because they can't afford them. Provided/Dreamstime

Some South Carolina residents are facing tough choices between paying their bills and filling their medications, a major health care lobbying group said. 

AARP found 27 percent of adults under 65 in South Carolina have stopped taking medication because of cost, slightly less than the national average. 

The report's findings, released Thursday, are hardly new. But prescriptions costs are a mounting political issue with the 2020 presidential election around the corner.

"What we want people to realize is, that right now there is no mechanism by which we can control the cost of drugs," Teresa Arnold, AARP's South Carolina director, said. "What we really need to do is put some guardrails on this process."

The AARP analysis evaluated the three most widely used prescriptions by people 50 and older, one each for diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Each of those prescriptions' prices have increased by thousands of dollars during the last five years.

In recent weeks, President Donald Trump's administration has announced broad proposals aimed at cracking down on the costs of health care. One, released in late July by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, would allow Americans to import prescriptions from Canada. 

Most policymaking around the cost of prescriptions takes place at the federal level. But actions at the state level are possible, Arnold said. 

Legislation passed this year in Maryland and Maine that set up a state-appointed review board tasked with investigating high prescription prices. Other states have considered similar actions, according to the National Academy for State Health Policy.  

The 2020 presidential election has brought the issue of drug pricing to the forefront. But some reports are showing the upward trend of drug prices may actually be slowing. Pharmacy benefit manager Express Scripts said early this year its customers saw drug spending increase by less than half a percent in 2018, to a 25-year low for the company.

AARP lobbies on the issue in part because prescription drug prices are of special concern to its core membership of  Americans 50 and over. The organization has spent $3.7 million on its lobbying efforts so far this year, according to OpenSecrets.

Dr. Victor Hirth, a physician in Columbia and a specialist in treatment of the elderly, said many of his patients are on fixed incomes and concerned about the costs of their prescriptions.

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It is difficult to keep track of changing drug prices, as well as shortages, he said. Patients are poorly equipped to shop for the best price for a medication, and health providers could do a better job of keeping cost in mind when pulling out a prescription pad.

“I think physicians probably need to be a little more cognizant of the issue of drug costs,” Hirth said. “That needs to be part and parcel of the consideration.”

Newer classes of drugs are typically the most expensive, Hirth explained.

But even medications that have been around a long time are increasing in cost. The AARP highlighted the price of Aggrenox, a stroke preventative released decades ago. Its price increased from $3,030 per year in 2012 to $5,930 per year in 2017.

Costs are still driving Americans to quit their prescribed medications or take them other than how they were prescribed.  Twenty-four percent of people say it is difficult to afford their prescriptions, a Kaiser Family Foundation survey shows. 

Reach Mary Katherine Wildeman at 843-937-5594. Follow her on Twitter @mkwildeman.