Drug law could add to doctor shortage

A recent study warns against mandating a prescription for Sudafed and other medicines containing pseudoephedrine. But one South Carolina lawmaker is still pursuing a law to combat the manufacturing and usage of meth.

A proposed state law that would make it more difficult for sick patients to purchase Sudafed and other drugs containing pseudoephedrine has drawn criticism inside and outside the state.

But some legislators want the law in place so that drug abusers, including those who use Sudafed to make meth, can’t easily access the ingredients they need.

“Right now, the meth problem is rampant in South Carolina,” said Rep. Kit Spires, a Republican from Lexington who owns his own pharmacy.

Spires prefiled a bill in December 2014 that would require a prescription to purchase pseudoephedrine, used to treat nasal and sinus congestion. The bill has not seen action in more than a year and will die if it doesn’t pass by the end of session this summer.

Spires said he’ll reintroduce the bill next session and expects it to gain support.

“Abusing this drug impacts family members, and they’re making these drugs in homes where children are living,” he said.

But if South Carolina adopted a law that requires prescriptions for these drugs, a new study suggests the law would generate nearly 18,000 more trips to doctors per year, in a state that already suffers from a doctor shortage. The national study was conducted by Avalere, a health care consulting firm, and paid for by the national Consumer Healthcare Products Association, which represents over-the-counter drug manufacturers.

If the bill becomes law, Avalere estimates Medicaid costs in this state would increase by $300,000 and South Carolina would lose $1 million in sales taxes during the first year of a prescription mandate.

Avalere also said the law would exacerbate the existing physician shortage. By 2025, the company estimated the United States will be short 52,000 primary care physicians, including thousands in South Carolina.

“There are 57 million Americans, including 26 percent of South Carolinians, living in areas where there aren’t enough primary care physicians,” said Caroline Pearson, senior vice president for Avalere Health.

South Carolina is one of 32 states already electronically tracking the sales of products containing pseudoephedrine. The drugs are usually located behind a pharmacist’s counter. Patients must sign for the medicine before purchasing it.

Taking things a step further by requiring a doctor’s signature would be more trouble than its worth, said Dr. David Louder, a Medical University of South Carolina executive.

While residents in Charleston and nearby areas have no problem getting to a primary care physician, Louder said the new law wouldn’t help the trend of declining resources in rural areas.

For example, Barnwell County’s hospital and others across the state have shut their doors in recent years.

“South Carolina hospitals are in difficult-to-sustain financial straits and this would further erode the ability to support primary care in these areas,” said Louder.

Echoing Louder’s comments, Jennifer Buschick, a spokeswoman for the South Carolina Primary Health Care Association, said a national report released last month states that health centers could serve 2 million more patients if all vacancies were filled.

Though she didn’t make the correlation to pseudoephedrine use, Buschick did add that increasing the demand for doctors, without hiring more of them, would cause the industry and patients to suffer.

“Because of a persistent national shortage of clinicians, particularly in rural and underserved areas, most health centers currently struggle to recruit and retain the clinical workforce necessary to meet patient needs,” she said.

But Spires, drawing on his experience as pharmacist, said he doesn’t think his bill would drive a huge demand for more doctors or clog up their offices with more patients.

“The only people who would go to the doctor would be the people who really need the medication because of their allergies,” he said.

Reach Derrek Asberry at 843-937-5517. Follow him on Twitter @DerrekAsberry.