Nearly $2 Billion in Prescription Drugs Wasted Every Year

By John Lavitt 02/10/15

A new study has also found that nearly $5 billion worth of drugs in unopened packs are dumped in the garbage every year.

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University of Chicago researchers have reported that long-term care facilities in the United States waste $2 billion dollars in unexpired medicines every year.

Including all other sources of wasted medicines, a further study revealed that as much as $5 billion dollars worth of unexpired prescription drugs in unopened packs, bottles, and vials are incinerated or tossed in the garbage every year. Rather than redistribute the medications to other patients in need, the waste reflects the inefficiency of the national healthcare system.

In the Marketplace article, Deane Kirchner of Lincoln Glen Skilled Nursing Facility in San Jose, Calif., explained how ignorance prevents any outcry. “I think if the public knew how we had to destroy so many drugs, they would be surprised,” Kirchner said.

The excess of drugs on hand are a result of patients leaving the facility before finishing a prescription, having had an allergic reaction a few days into a 30-day supply, or simply having passed away while on the medication. Since patients in nursing homes tend to take a multitude of medications, the waste increases almost geometrically.

Both state and federal law forbid medical staff in nursing homes from giving one patient’s pills to another. Even if the patient in need has the same prescription, the perfectly safe, up-to-date medications are still thrown away. Most nursing homes actually incinerate these medications, creating a bonfire as if dollar bills were being burned.

University of Chicago researchers came up with an estimate that as much as $2 billion a year in drugs are being wasted at these long-term facilities. At the same time, one in four people in the U.S. struggle to afford their prescriptions. In response to such waste and such need in Oklahoma, Linda Johnston, the Tulsa County Director of Social Services, runs a drug donation program.

“It’s such a simple concept, and it has really, really helped real people," Johnston said. "If we want to solve this problem for real there needs to be some clear and concise guidance across federal and state policy on how to deal with these issues.”

For the last decade, Johnston has convinced retired doctors to pick up unused medications, redistributing $16 million worth to date. Federal statistics show the most common class of drugs found in long-term care facilities are for behavioral health.

According to Johnston, access to psych drugs can be the difference between remaining employed and being laid off or being able to stay home instead of being locked up in a mental health facility.

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.