‘Extremely frustrating’ mail delays for prescriptions hit veterans, rural areas

By: - August 25, 2020 1:50 pm

Photo by Master Sgt. Jason W. Edwards | U.S. Air Force

Jan Stowe, a Vietnam War veteran from Traverse City, Mich., says she was unable to move her head and neck for several days last month after going without medication to treat extreme muscle spasms.

Stowe, a Department of Veterans Affairs patient who receives her medication through the U.S. Postal Service, said in an interview with States Newsroom that she missed four or five days taking her prescription for diazepam, commonly marketed as Valium, because of mail delays.

Without the drug, her movement was restricted, and she started experiencing withdrawal symptoms, she said. It wasn’t life-threatening, she said, “but it was life-altering.”

“It’s not life-saving,” she added. “It’s not like insulin, or heart medication or anything like that. But it was just extremely frustrating and uncomfortable.”

Stowe is not alone. Veterans, people who require specialty medications, rural residents far from pharmacies and others who receive their prescription medications through the Postal Service say they have experienced delays and other delivery disruptions after the Trump administration made changes to post office operations.

The anecdotes have added fuel to Democrats’ criticism of a Postal Service overhaul they say is to blame, and involve a key group that President Donald Trump has worked to court throughout his presidency—veterans, who rely heavily on the mail for their medications.

The Postal Service has removed sorting machines and other infrastructure from post offices and limited postal workers’ hours since Postmaster General Louis DeJoy joined the agency in June. DeJoy has said removal of sorting machines was underway before he joined the government and has disputed that he’s limited overtime hours. A July memo to all Postal Service employees, though, restricts extra trips to ensure on-time delivery.

DeJoy has also rebutted allegations that he’s acting at the behest of President Donald Trump to deliberately sabotage the upcoming elections.

There is little indication prescription delivery problems are widespread. The VA said its average shipping time in July was about 2.9 days, up from 2.3 days the previous month— a 25% increase but still within the three to five days the VA aims at for delivery. The country’s major pharmacies and shippers of prescription drugs haven’t complained about late deliveries.

But there is at least anecdotal evidence that patients like Stowe who depend on the mail for prescription medication are seeing delays and it’s stressful even for those who’ve not missed doses. The VA has told the Veterans of Foreign Wars that the Detroit area, along with parts of New York and New Jersey, are hotspots for prescription delivery problems, according to the VFW spokesman Terrence Hayes.

Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema told DeJoy about constituents who’d had problems receiving medication at a Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing Friday. She was joined by senators from both political parties, including Gary Peters, D-Mich., Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Jacky Rosen, D-Nev.

Rosen’s office said in each of the last two weeks, more than 1,000 Nevadans have called or written, worried about the effect mail delays may have on their prescription deliveries. In that time, Rosen’s office received more communications about that issue than any other, including coronavirus.

The problem can be especially acute for people who need specialty drugs that aren’t generally available at most pharmacies. People who live in rural areas, which are likely farther from specialty pharmacies, are particularly dependent on mail orders.

Ben Wilson, a progressive activist in southwest Wisconsin, usually receives his HIV medication through the mail, he said. That spares him a 70-mile round trip to the hospital pharmacy in La Crosse to pick up the prescription in person.

Earlier this month, Wilson said, he received a call from a pharmacy worker who recommended Wilson pick up the prescription himself because postal services could cause him to miss a dose of the daily medication, which could have dire consequences.

Veterans are also more likely than most to rely on the Postal Service. The VA Mail Order Pharmacy processed about 120 million prescriptions in fiscal 2016, according to the department. Every workday, about 330,000 veterans receive medications from a Department of Veterans Affairs pharmacy. About 90% of those deliveries are sent through the Postal Service.

John Rose, an Army Security Agency Vietnam veteran from Troy, Mich., receives 14 prescriptions from the VA. They usually arrive one to three days after he orders them, but recently have taken nine or 10 days, he said.

“They’re really normally very good,” Rose said. “With Trump screwing with the post office and everything like he is, everything’s slowed down.”

Stowe, who served as a nurse in the Women’s Army Corps during Vietnam, receives the medication from a VA hospital pharmacy about 130 miles away in Saginaw. Because the medication is a controlled substance, she can’t make the monthly order early. In July, she reordered it seven days before it ran out, but it took 11 or 12 to arrive, she said.

An internal USPS document published Monday by the office of House Government Oversight and Reform Chair Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., showed Postal Service deliveries were recently delayed. The document showed a steep decline in service standards since July, Democrats said.

Much of the Democratic opposition to the administration’s handling of the Postal Service has focused on the impact on the election, in which many voters are expected to vote by mail out of fears of contracting COVID-19 through in-person voting. Trump said earlier this month he opposed providing more funding for the USPS because he wanted to prevent universal vote by mail.

But the medication issue has upset Americans as well and given Democrats a new target.

Trump “is putting the lives of Nevada’s seniors at risk by trying to defund the post office,” Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., said in her Democratic National Convention address last week. “Here’s what that means: They won’t be able to get their prescriptions, because he wants to win an election.”

In a bipartisan vote Saturday, the U.S. House approved a bill to provide $25 billion in emergency appropriations for the USPS, though the Senate appears unlikely to take up the legislation.

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Jacob Fischler
Jacob Fischler

Jacob covers federal policy and helps direct national coverage as deputy Washington bureau chief for States Newsroom. Based in Oregon, he focuses on Western issues. His coverage areas include climate, energy development, public lands and infrastructure.