Prescription Bills Put Squeeze On Seniors

For Many, Government Aid Cannot Solve Dilemma

December 29, 1991|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,Staff writer

If they still have any money left after buying their prescriptions, seniors might want to consider buying stock in the drug industry they spend so much money supporting.

Before they reach for the medicine cabinet, Carroll seniors often have had to reach into their pocketbooks and wallets to pay $100 or more a month for prescriptions to treat everything from high blood pressure to ulcers.

"Up until I was 75, I didn't take any medication, I didn't go to the doctor -- nothing," said Maude Little of Uniontown Road. "Then, four years ago, it seemed first one thing, then another."

Even withher Maryland State Pharmacy Assistance card, Little, now 79, has to spend $4 per prescription. While it may not seem like a lot to pay for one prescription, she has to fill up to 10 a month, and one is not covered by pharmacy assistance.

If she didn't get pharmacy assistance, she said, she just wouldn't be able to take her medicine.

Herchildren help buy what pharmacy assistance doesn't cover.

Little's sole income is a Social Security check, which she signs over each month to cover her care and living expenses at a care home.

Only those with incomes of $620 a month or less qualify for a Maryland Pharmacy Assistance Card that would reduce their cost to $4 a prescription.

In Carroll, 324 seniors have such a card. But the program doesn't cover all drugs. Many ulcer medications don't qualify, for example,and some can cost as much as $90 a month.

Mary R. Miller, 82, of Old Washington Road in Westminster doesn't qualify for pharmacy assistance. But she said she's lucky she only has to take one medication -- blood pressure pills that cost her about $30 a month.

Miller's income is only slightly over the $620-a-month income ceiling for pharmacy assistance.

But close only means she gets no assistance from the program.

Through the Senior Information and Assistance Program at the Bureau of Aging, however, she has been able to learn about other help.

For example, Miller got about $200 this winter from the state's energy assistance fund. But she feels there ought to be more help available for seniors who have high prescription bills and low incomes.

"I think it's awful," she said. "It doesn't look fair. Somepeople can get everything (assistance programs) and some can't get anything."

Elizabeth Passman, director of the senior assistance program, has applications available for seniors who might qualify for pharmacy assistance. She said seniors who are close to the income limitshould see her to determine what income and assets must be counted.

For example, the senior's home and car -- assuming the person still uses them -- would not count against them in filing for assistance,she said.

Those who don't qualify for pharmacy assistance can do what Miller did and apply for other aid programs. Passman said some seniors who can't get pharmacy aid can get food stamps.

"Some people have to decide, 'Am I going to put food on the table, or am I goingto pay for my medicine?' " Passman said.

Other kinds of help include renters and homeowners tax credits, she said.

Those with incomes lower than $384 a month would qualify for Medicaid, which also pays for prescription drugs.

Medicare, however, does not cover drugs -- only part of doctor and hospital charges. Private insurance plans sold to supplement Medicare rarely include drug coverage. And when they do, they are very expensive, Passman said.

The amount a senior spends on drugs varies, but Passman said $100 to $150 a month is an "upper range" for the people who come to her for help.

"We are beginning to see some at $200, and psychotropic drugs (for people with mental illnesses) can be very expensive -- up to $300," Passman said.

"If the doctor is prescribing drugs that are fairly new, the price is high," said Ruth Newton, a staff member in Passman's office and a former nurse. "But the general idea is they're better."

Ann Allen,Passman's assistant director, said some seniors shop around for the best buys. That is not a bad idea, she said, but she suggested that seniors find one pharmacy at which to buy all their medications.

"Having one drugstore that deals with everything enables the pharmacistto look at all the drugs you're taking," Allen said.

Seniors who look for the best prices should get a total from each pharmacy for all the medications they take, then choose the store with the lowest overall price, Allen said.

Arthur Riley, co-owner and pharmacist at Washington Heights Pharmacy in Westminster, agreed with Allen.

He said seniors will find, though, that while the cost of one medicationmay vary from one store to another, the total cost for a number of them won't.

Riley said there are many reasons why a senior can benefit from choosing one drugstore for all prescriptions.

He said a pharmacist can detect drug interactions or duplications -- especially if the senior sees two ore more doctors, each of whom many not know what another is prescribing.

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