Paul Wellman (file)

Health programs administered by Santa Barbara County spent almost twice as much on prescription medicines in 2015 as they did the year before, jumping from $2.4 million to $4.2 million. The year-to-date number for 2016 has already hit $4.8 million. Nationwide, the escalating price of prescription medications has been driving up the cost of medical care. But in Santa Barbara, according to public health czar Takashi Wada, the numbers tell a more complicated story.

Wada said his Public Health Department has been partnering with CenCal Health — a MediCal funded program serving 173,000 county residents — under a relatively new federal initiative that’s expanded the number of patients for whom the county provides prescription drugs, while simultaneously offering a major discount on the meds purchased. Even though the absolute dollars are skyrocketing, Wada explained, the new program has actually generated a net savings that’s allowed Public Health to invest more in diabetes prevention and treatment programs.

At Cottage Health, however, the rising cost of prescription medications has had “dramatic impacts,” according to spokesperson Maria Zate, who reported that the cost of drugs for patients who stay overnight has jumped 27 percent in the past five years. Zate attributed this rise, in part, to the high prices charged for new cancer medications. In addition, she said the price for some generic drugs — which theoretically should be much cheaper — have risen 100-fold. As older medications become generic, Zate explained, companies that manufacture them have ceased production in response to the lower prices. That, in turn, has created production bottlenecks, which have pushed prices up.


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