Skyrocketing inhaler prices push Wisconsin lawmakers to investigate pharmaceutical companies

On average, AstraZeneca charges U.S. pharmacies between $400-700 for each name-brand inhaler, while the same medication is available abroad for under $100.
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Posted at 10:11 AM, Feb 13, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-13 11:11:21-05

GLENDALE — For thousands of people in Wisconsin that deal with respiratory issues, being able to afford an inhaler can often leave even the most financially secure feeling breathless.

Vicki Fuerstenau knows the pain of not being able to breathe freely.

At home in Glendale, Vicki says every morning she makes a choice when it comes to treating her chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

"Do I see dollar signs or do I see breathing? Often times, I choose not to pay the dollar signs and I don't do the inhaler,” said Fuerstenau.

The retired flight attendant says she spends more than $700 a month for two inhalers.

“I should be able to disregard that I have this problem of COPD and take my inhaler everyday and live in comfort and live knowing that I'm doing the best I can to take care of myself. And that's the saddest part,” said Fuerstenau.

Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin is part of a congressional investigation looking into the skyrocketing price of inhalers.

One of the biggest manufacturers, AstraZeneca, sets what is called the wholesale cost, which is the price that pharmacies pay to have the products in stock.

On average, they charge U.S. pharmacies between $400-700 for each name-brand inhaler, while the same medication is available abroad for under $100.

At Milwaukee's Hayat Pharmacy, providers say this price gap can make it difficult to get patients what they need.

"They know that the majority of patients' insurance will pay those prices for their medications. They don't really take into account the fact that uninsured patients don't really have that sort of access to those sort of funds,” said Dr. Tyler Andrysczyk, Clinical Pharmacist, Hayat Pharmacy.

More than 500,000 people, or 1 in 11 adults, suffer from asthma and other respiratory conditions in Wisconsin.

In 2018, 71 Wisconsinites died due to the chronic lung disease, with nearly 40 percent of those victims over the age of 65.

Vicki says the fear that she could hurt herself by rationing her inhaler is something that weighs on her all the time.

"It's kind of a dirty little secret that I have to make it on my own. That I can't depend on insurance or I can't depend on the government. I guess those are the two things it comes down to and that's heartbreaking,” said Fuerstenau.

She hopes this investigation will open people's eyes and potentially push companies to finally make a change.

"We have to let each other know that we care and that maybe we can get more people to fight for our rights. These are rights. They're not privileges. They are American rights,” said Fuerstenau.