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Over one-third of Montanans are changing their medication, including skipping doses, because of cost, according to a recent analysis of federal survey data.

An estimated 35% of Montanans with private insurance changed their medicine in 2017 because of price, according to the State Health Access Data Assistance Center. That’s up from 21% in 2014.

Change could include asking a doctor for cheaper medicine, taking less medication than prescribed or buying meds outside of the country.

Report authors warn the numbers come with a hedge: a sample can never offer a perfect reflection of an entire population’s experience.

That’s especially true in Montana, which has a smaller-than-typical population to survey. The state’s margin of error is 11.6% — well beyond the national 0.8%.

Senior researcher Brett Fried said it’s important to look at numbers beyond a year. And Montana’s data shows people overall face a continued increase in the price of medication and insurance premiums.

Overall, an estimated 39% of Montanans between the ages of 19 and 64 made changes to medicine in 2017 because of the price, according to the analysis. That includes people across coverage types — whether they’re uninsured, have public coverage like Medicaid or are insured through a job.

The state doesn’t track data for all Montanans. However, Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services spokesman Jon Ebelt said the state can monitor what care looks like for the roughly 25% of Montanans on Medicaid.

“We can see when a member stops taking their medication, but we cannot see why,” Ebelt said.

He said Medicaid members’ cost share for medicine is minimal and doesn’t change depending on drug costs.

He pointed to a 2018 survey of Medicaid expansion enrollees that evaluated their access to care before and after receiving the coverage. Roughly 45% of respondents said they took less medication than prescribed due to costs before they had access to the expansion.

AARP Montana recently released a chart showing the growing price of name-brand drugs alongside the number of Montanans with an illness specific to the medication.

For example, Revlimid is used to treat cancer. The drug price increased from $147,413 per year in 2012 to $247,496 by 2017, according to AARP. The organization reported there are 112,153 Montanans living with cancer.

In that time, Lantus, a form of insulin, increased from $2,907 per year to $4,702 per year. There are 76,352 people with diabetes in Montana.

“People are struggling,” AARP Montana State Director Tim Summers said. “If you are trying to make the difficult decision to pay for your medicines or your utility or food, that has outcomes for your health and wellbeing.”

Summers said he would like to see more state authority to investigate potential prescription price gouging.

He said AARP also hopes to see a state program to import less expensive medications from Canada. He said as is, some Montanans travel to find cheaper medication prices.

That’s a tool Montana’s Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney has proposed as part of his campaign for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2020.

Summers said the good news is that politicians are taking steps to create policies that balance drug prices.

During the 2019 Montana legislative session, legislators passed Senate Bill 270, which stops clauses that prohibited pharmacists from telling people about a less-expensive alternative to a drug they wanted to buy.

Another bill, House Bill 710, tried to require prescription drug manufacturers and insurers to disclose pricing information on some highly expensive drugs. That bill died in the Montana Senate on a tie vote.

Summers said he hopes another form of the bill resurfaces when lawmakers meet again in 2021.

Leigh Purvis, director of the Health Services Research AARP Public Policy Institute, said similar legislation on the price of prescriptions are being discussed on a national level.

“One big takeaway from all this is how engaged policy makers are on this issue, which didn’t exist even five years ago,” Purvis said. “That speaks to how outrageous prices have gotten and how high the need is for something to be done.”

Katheryn Houghton can be reached at khoughton@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628. Follow her on Twitter @K_Hought.

Katheryn Houghton is the city government and health reporter for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

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