How to Stockpile Medications in Case of an Emergency

There is a Safe and an Unsafe Way to Do It

You've seen it before: the empty shelves in the grocery store after people hear a big storm is on the way. There is an instinct to gather all the resources you can in case you are homebound for any length of time. However, the millions of Americans on prescription medications have more to worry about than food and water. Will they have enough medication to weather an emergency? Will they be able to pick up their refills on time? What can they do to be sure they have the medications they need when they need them?

Pharmacist holding medicine box and capsule pack
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Why People Stockpile Medications

People are afraid that there will be drug shortages in the case of an emergency. Whether it's a natural disaster like a hurricane or the spread of an infectious disease like COVID-19, people want to be prepared so they can stay as healthy as possible in the aftermath.

It is human nature to want to protect yourself and your loved ones. However, it is also important to be rational about your decisions. Hoarding medications, depending on how it's done, can be costly and even dangerous. It is important to understand the nature of the situation you are facing and to take a close look at the risks versus benefits of stockpiling medications.

Ways to Stockpile Medications

There are different ways people stockpile medications, but these may be the most common:

  • Refilling prescriptions early
  • Paying for extra prescriptions
  • Rationing medications

When considering these options, keep in mind you do not want to needlessly stockpile medications. Medications have expiration dates. Also, it is possible that the dose of your medication could change in the future, making the stockpiled medication superfluous. It may be reasonable to consider a one-month supply as a back-up but doing more than that could be potentially wasteful.

Get Early Refills

You cannot refill your medications whenever you want. Your healthcare provider has to write a prescription, your insurance company has to then approve the prescription for coverage, and your pharmacy (local or mail-order) has to dispense the medication. Underlying all this are federal rules about the frequency of medication refills as well as rules set by your health plan.

The Academy of Managed Care Pharmacy recommends pharmacists refill medications no sooner than after 75% of the prescription has been used. In simple terms, a non-controlled medication can be refilled as early as seven days before a 30-day supply runs out and 21 days before a 90-day supply runs out. Some pharmacies and insurers restrict refills to two days before the refill is due whether it's a 30-day or 90-day prescription.

Due to their addictive potential, federal regulations put a tighter time restriction for refills of controlled medications. Schedule III and Schedule IV medications, like codeine (II, III, or V) or Valium (IV), cannot be filled sooner than two days before a 30-day supply runs out.

If you refill your non-controlled medication seven days early every month, you will have accumulated an extra six-week supply after six months, and a three-month supply after one year. This is one way to stockpile medications. However, some insurance companies will not refill medications based on cumulative early refills. They will claim that you have enough medication and will not approve a refill until the dispensed quantity of medication is used.

There may be valid reasons to get an early prescription refill. Perhaps you lost your medication or are going away on vacation. Perhaps your mail-order delivery will not arrive in time and you would otherwise be forced to miss doses. In situations like these, you may be able to ask your doctor or pharmacist for an emergency refill. Some health plans may even have provisions for "travel exceptions" and "emergency exceptions" that override their usual prescription rules. Otherwise, your doctor will need to make a plea to the insurer directly to cover any early refills.

If you are unable to reach your doctor for any reason, your pharmacist can usually provide a three-day supply if a medication is deemed medically necessary. You could also consider seeking care at an urgent care clinic to get a short-term emergency prescription written by a healthcare provider until your own doctor is available.

As of 2020, at least 17 states have enacted Kevin's Law, allowing for emergency refills of insulin by a pharmacist. The law was written in honor of 36-year-old Kevin Houdeshell who died from diabetic ketoacidosis in 2014 after he was unable to reach his doctor for a refill on his insulin. Ohio first passed the legislation in 2015.

Pay for Extra Prescriptions

Your healthcare provider may be willing to write a back-up prescription for you in the case of an emergency, i.e., an extra supply of medication. However, your insurance plan may not pay for it. This leaves you to pay out of pocket. Not everyone can afford this option, depending on the medication in question. Generic medications are generally more affordable and can be purchased through discount drug programs like those offered by Walmart. Brand-name medications, however, may be out of financial range for many people.

Alternatively, you can reach out to your insurance company about getting an extra refill covered. If your health plan has an "emergency exception", this should be straightforward. If it does not, the insurer can choose to deny coverage for extra medication.

Ration Your Medications

Your healthcare provider does not prescribe drugs for fun. They prescribe them because they are medically necessary to keep you in the best possible health given your underlying medical conditions. Missing doses of your medications to save them for later puts your health at risk. Please don't do it, if you can help it.

Despite the risks, however, many Americans ration medications and put their lives on the line. It is often because they cannot afford their medications. An AARP study reported that 28% of people less than 65 years of age stopped taking their prescription medication because of cost in 2017. Likewise, the 2019 Kaiser Family Foundation Health Tracking Poll found that approximately one-fourth of adults, including seniors, found it a challenge to pay for their medications. A third (29%) did not take their medications as prescribed; 19% did not fill their medication; 18% took an over-the-counter drug instead; 12% cut their pills in half or skipped doses.

Perhaps one of the biggest examples of this is seen in people who have diabetes. Complications of not treating the condition can include heart disease, kidney disease, peripheral neuropathy, retinopathy, and even death. Unfortunately, the price of insulin has increased considerably over the past decade. The AARP study referenced above found a more than 62% price increase in Lantus, a brand of insulin, over 5 years. It is not surprising that many people cannot afford it. Yale researchers published a study in JAMA Internal Medicine showing than one in four people do not follow through with their insulin treatment as prescribed. Rationing their medication in this way led to poor blood sugar control and increased complications.

Why You Should Not Stockpile Medications

On a personal level, it may make sense to stockpile medications. You can assure that you will have what you need when you need it. On a societal level, the opposite is true. If everyone were to hoard medications or medical supplies, this could lead to unnecessary shortages.

Those shortages not only pose a risk to those with pre-existing conditions, but they also increase the costs to the healthcare system at large. Due to supply and demand, the price of certain drugs and medical supplies may go up, and people may feel compelled to seek alternative treatments from foreign countries or online sources that may not always be reputable.

The shortage of face masks in the COVID-19 is one example of this. The World Health Organization and other medical organizations have stated that a mask is only indicated for someone who is actively coughing or sneezing or who is taking care of someone suspected to have COVID-19. However, healthy people have been panicking and hoarding the masks anyway. Now we face a global shortage, and healthcare workers are left without adequate supplies as they aim to diagnose and treat people who may have been infected by the virus. Counterfeiters are taking advantage as well, trying to profit off people's fears by selling respirator masks that do not meet National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) specifications. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has published a list of counterfeit masks that are not NIOSH-approved.

A Word From Verywell

It may be enticing to stockpile medications in case of an emergency but take care. There are safe and unsafe ways to go about it. You can try to work with your doctor and insurer to get an emergency refill. What you should not do is ration your medications to save them for later. Your health is too important to put at risk that way.

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Article Sources
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  2. Drug Enforcement Administration, Diversion Control Division. Section IX – valid prescription requirements.

  3. Biddle J. Kevin’s Law ensures availability of emergency insulin. Diabetic Nation. February 3, 2020.

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  6. Herkert D, Vijayakumar P, Luo J, et al. Cost-related insulin underuse among patients with diabetesJAMA Intern Med. 2019;179(1):112-114. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2018.5008

  7. World Health Organization. Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) advice for the public: When and how to use masks.

  8. World Health Organization. Shortage of personal protective rquipment endangering health workers worldwide. March 3, 2020.

  9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Counterfeit respirators / misrepresentation of NIOSH-approval. Updated February 10, 2020.