We Asked People What They Do When They Can't Afford Their Meds

It's not meditation or fish oil.

Feb 10 2017, 1:41pm

Image: Brandon Robbins

"I'll take anything for the pain," I pleaded with my older brother on the phone, curled into a ball on the pavement. I was eighteen at the time, and had never even smoked a cigarette, let alone done drugs—yet here I was, begging him to buy me narcotics from a local dealer he knew.

Only moments before, a stabbing pain had gripped me before I could reach my green Honda near the retail store I worked at. Warmth spread across my upper thighs and lower abdomen, causing me to fall to my knees and call my brother in tears. It would be two more years before doctors would diagnose me with endometriosis, a condition where tissue that normally lines the uterus grows outside of it—producing sharp, agonizing pangs in the abdomen for many, including me. Numerous hospital visits and rounds of antibiotics had done nothing to relieve the pain, yet the bills kept piling up. At the time, I was earning little over minimum wage and barely making ends meet—the thought of amassing thousands in medical debt with no hope of a cure seemed unfathomable.

This angst is all too real for many Americans struggling to afford their medical bills. A New York Times article from last year named the United States "the most expensive place in the world to get sick", with insurance often failing as a safety net. A situation made even bleaker for those who could stand to lose their insurance—and access to prescription drugs they need—within a year because of an impending ACA repeal.

Even for the minimally insured, the cost of repeated doctor's visits can be high enough to avoid them altogether. Some seek out alternative, albeit riskier methods to alleviate symptoms. Here, they explain where they turned. 

Sarai*, 23, Chicago, Illinois
I started using weed as a way to function after having a stroke when I was twenty years old. I was diagnosed with something called 'intracranial hypertension,' which is like having a pseudo tumor. My symptoms often included daily migraines that grew with intensity, which meant that I would often be in a completely dark, isolated room, with no light and no sound, and with ice packs completely surrounding my head. I had so many referrals, so many different medications that they wanted me to be trying. There's a migraine medication they prescribed where each pill was individually $150—something absurd. Taking weed [is] not something that I necessarily feel good about doing. I mean, it really sucks whenever I'm having to go pick up, because I'm literally having to do something illegal. But it makes a huge difference—just being able to actually get out of bed as opposed to lying down 20 hours of the day because your head feels like it's being hammered.

*Source prefers not to use real name.

Derek, 36, Ogden, Utah
In my mid-twenties I had a rotator cuff surgery, and was prescribed an insane amount of powerful opioids. That's when trouble started, because I fell in love with the drug and when the doctor cut me off, I was left with hellish withdrawals and a strong desire to continue taking the pills. My insurance had no problem paying for expensive medications, but wouldn't pay for treatments to reduce my pain. This is when I started buying pills illegally on the streets. Initially I was able to pay for my medication and doctor visits, but as my addiction tore my finances apart, I became unable to pay for prescriptions and preventative treatments that would alleviate a significant amount of pain I had from my broken bones.

Alaina, 23, Boston, Massachusetts
I have multiple disabilities, but the major ones that cause pain are endometriosis and dyspraxia, which affects my balance, motor skills, and ability to walk—and sometimes causes pain as a result. This past August, I began having extreme pain for no reason, mainly in my stomach and the areas where people typically have period cramps. This was similar to the pain I experienced before being on medication, and it was so severe that I missed weeks of work, and couldn't leave my house. I went to several doctors who were unable to help me, and most days, I tried drinking alcohol simply because it numbed the pain and helped put me to sleep. It affected my quality of life severely because I stopped seeking any further medical treatment for my issue and just waited for the pain to stop on its own. I had to stop working and wait several months to look for new employment, and in the meantime, couldn't afford to try new medical care beyond my regular physician and medication, because of [high] co-pays.

LaQuanta, 37, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
I found out I had pulmonary embolism when I was pregnant with my son—which was
pretty shocking at the time. It basically starts as a blood clot in your legs or in your extremities, and then the clot moves up into your lungs, blocking the flow of oxygen. So when I began having trouble breathing while walking up stairs, that's when I went to the hospital and was placed on blood thinners. I was fortunate that I didn't die from that first episode. Afterwards, the only medication available to me cost over $700 a month, and in the beginning, I was doing everything I could to pay for it—using credit cards and moving my bills around to try to have that money available.

When I could no longer afford the medication, I started taking less than what I was supposed to be taking because the full doses were so expensive. I felt hopeless—the whole experience was really traumatizing—I was really scared about what would happen to me and my unborn child. Eventually, I ended up having to be admitted to the ER in order to receive my medication. I felt like it was completely about the money, and if you didn't have it, then "your loss," and that just made me feel like less than human.

Leah, 32, Fort Wayne, Indiana
I cannot afford my psychiatric medications at over $500 per month each, so I gradually took myself off of them, which was probably pretty risky. My bipolar symptoms have returned, and I experience a lot of excruciating mental anguish, not just from being off those meds, but from physical pain as well. I've resorted to cannabis—which is much cheaper than pharmaceuticals—as an anxiety reduction strategy, because I cannot usually bear the burden of another doctor's appointment, as even with the discount, they are usually at least $100 a piece. I feel hopeless. I'm 32, but I feel like I'm 80.