Prescribing solution for seniors' high drug costs

NEIGHBORS

March 01, 2002|By Peg Adamarczyk | Peg Adamarczyk,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A CHANCE meeting with a local politician last summer turned Melanie Freeburger, a 58-year- old, semiretired pediatric nurse from Pasadena, into an activist who has taken her cause to the U.S. Senate.

The encounter happened at a local pharmacy, where Freeburger has prescriptions filled for her family, including her 86-year-old mother. Commiserating with the pharmacist about the high cost of drugs and describing her mother's lack of prescription drug coverage, she lamented the plight of so many older Americans.

"It is difficult for many seniors who have to rely on Social Security to pay for their medications," Freeburger said.

Although state and county health departments have implemented programs to offer low-cost prescription drug coverage for seniors, she explained, many have stringent requirements and limited coverage. Many seniors fall through the cracks. A comprehensive federal program would be the answer, the nurse and pharmacist agreed.

Freeburger was prepared to leave when County Councilwoman Shirley Murphy walked up to the counter. The pharmacist introduced the politician and the nurse, and an activist was born.

The two women began to discuss the prescription drug problem, and Murphy explained that she saw the dilemmas many seniors face while she served as commissioner for the county housing authority.

"That was almost 30 years ago," Murphy said, "and we still have people having to make those difficult choices today."

Although the women agreed that federal intervention is the only long-term solution, getting that message to Washington was a problem.

"We needed to put pressure on Congress to get the attention of the new administration," Murphy said.

Freeburger agreed to help Murphy with the grass-roots effort, and the District 3 Health Watch Task Force was born.

The fledgling task force, with Freeburger at the helm, made plans to grab the attention of Congress by launching a petition drive.

"We decided not to mount an all-out lobby, but to gather signatures on petitions that would be presented to Congress urging passage of an affordable, long-term prescription drug program," Freeburger said.

But before the task force was on its feet, America was plunged into war. Terrorism and security held the nation's attention.

"After Sept. 11, we realized that this issue was not the priority that it once was but that we still needed a solution to this problem," Freeburger said. "We would keep our focus on trying to get congressional attention to help solve the problem so that in 20 years our kids will not be trying to help us decide whether to eat or get our prescriptions," she said.

Task force volunteers began visiting senior centers and attending seniors club meetings, asking for signatures on petitions that would be sent to Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, urging federal action on the problem.

"It's been difficult, but we managed to visit over nine different groups of seniors and collected over 1,400 signatures," Freeburger said.

The petitions were turned over to Mikulski several weeks ago, but more signatures are needed.

"The senator was happy to receive the petitions and thanked us for keeping our focus on this issue during these difficult times," Murphy said. "It is a helpless feeling that, as a member of the County Council, I have no power over this issue, but the senator can help bring attention to this ongoing problem."

The spark of senatorial interest has re-energized the task force's petition drive. The task force is looking for more volunteers to collect signatures and find seniors who might be interested in telling Washington their opinions about the prescription drug issue.

"The issue may be small potatoes to some, but everyone has a family member or knows of a senior that needs help," Freeburger said, adding, "We will all be old one day."

Information about the petition drive: 410-222-6890.

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