Lisa Adametz has been waiting for her cholesterol medication since July 29. The Postal Service picked it up from a Veterans Affairs hospital weeks ago, but according to the tracking number, it still hasn’t been shipped, or even processed.
“I don’t know what’s going on, it’s just sitting there,” said Adametz, who lives in Nevada about an hour outside of Las Vegas.
Americans all across the country are waiting for the mail. While that can be annoying if you’re waiting on a package from Amazon, for people like Adametz, who are awaiting medication shipments, delays can pose a danger to their health.
Although retail pharmacies still dispense a significant majority of all prescriptions nationwide in person, mail-order — fueled in part by insurers and providers that require it — represents an important segment of the $500 billion market for prescription drugs. The US Postal Service shipped 1.2 billion prescriptions last year alone, according to the National Association of Letter Carriers. People dependent on the mail to receive their medications are left extremely vulnerable to the kind of disruptions that the USPS has been experiencing in recent weeks.
CVS, Walgreens, Rite Aid, and ExpressScripts, which are all among the nation’s largest pharmacies in terms of volume, told BuzzFeed News they have not been impacted by the problems at USPS. OptumRx, which fills some 500 million mail-order prescriptions a year, most of them shipped by the Postal Service, said it is monitoring the situation and will change carriers as needed. Humana, which relies heavily on the Postal Service to deliver prescriptions to its more than 13 million customers, recently posted on Facebook, “Some prescription orders may take a bit longer than expected, but it’s nothing that can’t be fixed”; the company did not respond to multiple requests for comment. PillPack, a service of Amazon which uses a variety of carriers — including USPS — to deliver prescriptions, also said that it was monitoring any delays. In emergency cases, it uses UPS to overnight shipments to patients. The Department of Veterans Affairs said the vast majority of its patients are still getting prescriptions on time.
Still, reports of medication delays are widespread and many people across the country are already clearly experiencing delays receiving critical medications. In interviews with nearly a dozen people, patients described waiting anywhere from three days to two weeks longer than usual for their medications to arrive. Some said they feel trapped by mail order, as their insurance plans either oblige them to only use mail order or require them to pay more (sometimes significantly more) out of pocket to use a retail pharmacy. For others, particularly in rural areas, there simply is no local pharmacy to visit.
The delays come after Louis DeJoy, who became postmaster general in June, overhauled the USPS — reducing or eliminating overtime, removing mail-sorting machines, and reorganizing the agency leadership. Even before DeJoy, the USPS had long been a target for President Trump, who recently said he would block emergency funding to the financially gutted agency. While this may thwart the agency’s ability to quickly deliver millions of ballots sent by in November, it is already affecting regular mail service for countless Americans — many of whose lives literally depend on timely delivery.
After serving in the first Gulf War, Adametz started having seizures. She also has post-traumatic stress disorder and had her gallbladder removed when doctors found severe blockages while trying to treat a bout of painful kidney stones. Because of the seizures, she also doesn’t drive. Although the VA delivers upwards of 80% of all its prescriptions by mail, it does allow local pickups, but Adametz lives an hour from the local VA hospital, so she relies instead on the US Postal Service to get her medications.
Without her cholesterol medication that she ran out of at the end of July, she makes sure to watch her diet and stay hydrated — temperatures in Nevada have recently topped 115 degrees. “I’m at really high risk of kidney stones” without that medication, she said.
She has enough of her asthma medication for now, but her antidepressants are running low now, too. Still, she said, at least she’s getting by. “I worry about the people who need heart medication. There are people who are in worse situations than I am,” Adametz said. “You can’t play Monopoly with people’s lives,” she added.
According to Veterans Affairs, prescriptions are taking an average of about three days to ship and 95% of prescriptions are getting to their patients on time, said Christina Noel, a spokesperson for the department. (Noel did not specify how this had changed from previous years.)
“The VA always encourages Veterans to order routine prescriptions in advance. When it comes to emergent prescriptions, VA either fills them onsite or uses commercial carriers to ensure timely delivery,” added Noel.
Still, for veterans like Herbert Arce — who has been ordering his prescriptions a week in advance from the VA for at last 15 years — that alone wasn’t enough to get his blood pressure medication and antidepressants on time. It took three weeks for his July prescriptions to arrive — leaving him without medications for two full weeks.
“I was getting headaches from not having my blood pressure medication,” said Arce, and added that he just tried to take more vitamin D to replace his antidepressants in the meantime.
The 54-year-old is three hours from his nearest VA hospital, in a rural town of 1,200 people in northern Maine.
On Aug. 6, Senator Gary Peters of Michigan posted a call for people experiencing problems with their mail delivery to share their stories. So far, the survey has received more than 7,000 responses (mostly from his state) — 650 of them, roughly 9%, mention problems with delivery of their medication, according to an analysis by his office.
“It’s clear that the new policies directed by Postmaster General DeJoy are hurting people who use the Postal Service as a lifeline for everyday needs, including Michiganders who rely on life-saving prescriptions they receive in the mail,” said Peters, ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, in a statement to BuzzFeed News.
While the need for on-time delivery of medication is urgent compared to many other kinds of mail, USPS told BuzzFeed News it does not have a separate method to process and deliver prescription medications. “These items are handled based on the class in which they are sent, Priority Mail, Priority Mail Express, or First-Class Mail, and the choice is decided by the sender,” according to their statement.
Postal workers told BuzzFeed News they are watching the delays happen in real time. Kevin Michel, who works as a mail processor at a location in Maryland, said there have been weekly policy changes that have affected the speed of delivery. There are usually three trucks of mail delivered each day to his location, but lately, he said, they’ve been instructed by superiors not to process the third truck until the next day so that carriers can get to their routes faster.
“It’s obviously clear he’s trying to slow down the mail. It’s not a question,” Michel said, referring to DeJoy. “Everyone is frustrated.”
That is having an impact on lots of Americans who are stuck waiting for their prescriptions
“Frankly, I am furious,” said Allyson Mathis, a resident of Moab, Utah, a city of about 5,000 people, to BuzzFeed News. Mathis’s prescription recently took about six days to arrive in the mail, about twice as long as normal. “I am enraged, I am angry, I am scared,” she said of the -resident’s targeting of USPS.
In Johnson County, Kansas, Adrienne Kreutz said Aetna Specialty Pharmacy, which had been fulfilling her orders by mail, recently contacted her to say that moving forward, she can pick up her son’s prescription at a local CVS due to delays. “When I got that call about the CVS thing, my immediate response was, oh shit, this is really happening. Not just the medications; everything as a whole. It’s just terrifying,” she said.
In St. Louis, Ryan Markel said he went two days without his maintenance medication for Type 2 diabetes because it took six days to arrive rather than the usual two days. He had to limit his diet to protein, fat, and water until it arrived. “I should have ordered it earlier,” he said. “The US Postal Service had been the most reliable delivery service I’ve dealt with, including private carriers like UPS and FedEx, and Amazon. It has very quickly become one of the least reliable methods.”
One California resident, who asked not to be named, said his eye medications took about 20 days to arrive from the time they were ordered from the local VA.
“I view the US Postal Service as a public service, and should not be expected to turn a profit, especially as it serves underserved, lower-income areas,” said Markle. “And so the current happenings I find very distressing.”
As the US presidential election nears, Postal Service delays are having an effect on voters, too. Both Adametz and Arce — the two veterans who have been facing medication delays — described themselves as former Republicans who have become “never Trumpers” over the last few years. The US Postal Service delays have only compounded their frustrations.
“I’ve always valued being a Republican especially being in the military,” said Adametz, who added she has changed her affiliation to Independent since Trump took office. Now, she said, she simply can’t support the president anymore. “A lot of people are getting hurt by this senseless act.”