MEMPHIS, Tenn — More and more people say they’re having trouble paying for prescription drugs and health care. Some say it’s costing more than their mortgage, even with insurance.

But a community group called Good Shepherd is serving a rising number of underinsured people, helping them save up to 90% on prescriptions, in some cases.

“I have Lupus, I have Rheumatoid Arthritis, and I have psoriasis,” Penny Kolesar said. “I had to quit work in 2015. I started having symptoms as a child.”

Those symptoms are only getting worse for Kolesar. It’s changed her life.

“When you go into what they call a flare up, it’s horrendous. It’s horrible. It’s painful. You have brain fog. You can’t rest, because your whole body hurts,” she said. “It took us a good two years to find the right combination of which medications I needed to take.”

But the problems kept piling. While insured, the medications still cost a lot.

“With insurance, my cost was $369,” she said. That’s every month.

When her husband retired, prices went up more under Medicare.

“Our biggest expenses are mortgage and healthcare. A lot of that is prescription. I will say we spend a lot more on the second than the first,” she said.

She’s not alone. As basic expenses like groceries and gas increase, so do prescription drug prices. The Department of Health and Human services reports over the last year prices rose an average of 31% with some increasing 500%.

“Just have more co-pays. Higher deductibles. It just feels like every time you go to the doctor it feels more expensive,” said Sara Collins, vice president for Coverage and Access at the Commonwealth Fund, which is a health research non-profit.

Collins said their survey shows 43% of working-age adults last year were underinsured, meaning they were inadequately covered by either their employer’s insurance or through coverage purchased through the individual market and marketplaces.

42% reported they couldn’t pay their medical bills or were trying to pay off medical debt.

What’s even more unnerving, 46% say they skipped or delayed medical care because of cost.

The CDC says one in 10 Americans skipped doses of their medication to save money.

“What it means, people are avoiding treating health problems, so that contributes to poor health over time. There’s less workforce productivity,” she said.

Over time, Collins said the Mid-South will see a greater strain on its healthcare system, because people will leave their chronic health problems untreated.

“The United States has a very complex, fragmented healthcare system,” Michell Zulu said.

Zulu used to work for a large pharmacy chain.

“I found in a way I was participating in doing harm. When I had to turn you away, because you couldn’t afford your medication knowing that you needed it. That did a number for me,” she said.

Three years ago, she began working for Good Shepherd, a non-profit, membership-based pharmacy in Memphis working to get those who are uninsured and underinsured the prescriptions they need for free or at cost.

In a city where 22% percent live in poverty, every dollar matters.

“People are having to decide do I eat today or do they not. I think for me when it became evident that I wanted to serve a different purpose,” she said. “I do think we have a lot of health disparities here in Memphis.”

While they have many uninsured clients, Zulu said they’re seeing more underinsured people. She said they have been able to help them save on average 60 to 90 percent.

“I do think we do have a lot of people because our city is blue collar, so there are a lot of people who fall into the gap of being covered, but are they really?” she said.

Kolesar said without Good Shepherd, she wouldn’t be able to afford her medications. She said they now total hundreds, if not a thousand, a month.

“I probably would be bed ridden,” she said, holding back tears. “We have to get the word out more. Things like this. This is amazing. This is a resource in our city. We don’t fall below the poverty level in this city. I have no idea what the people who can’t afford insulin and these types of medications they can’t live without. I really don’t what they do.”

What to learn more about Good Shepherd?

Good Shepherd employees worked to change the law. You can now donate a prescription through its Remedi Chain program.

To learn more: click here

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