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Bad Medicine

Seniors turn to Canada as new Medicare bill fails to deliver

By Ellen Bicheler

Jewel Coccellato, 75, pays more than $200 per month for glaucoma, asthma and eczema medications. Diagnosed with high cholesterol, she now needs the prescription drug Zocar as well. Like many seniors living on a fixed income, the Sebastopol retiree can't afford it. "It's $93 more a month," she complains. "I've been trying to cut back on my other medications to make them last longer."

It wasn't supposed to be like this. In his state of the union address in January, President George W. Bush promised that "most seniors can expect to see their drug bills cut in half," thanks to the Republican-crafted Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement and Modernization Act the president had signed into law the previous month. The legislation, which doesn't take full effect until 2006, has since come under heavy criticism after it was revealed that Bush administration officials knowingly underestimated the bill's $400 billion cost over 10 years by as much as $200 billion.

But that's news to most viewers of Medicare's $80 million publicly funded ad campaign touting the new prescription-drug benefit. Slick TV commercials promise seniors that once it takes effect in 2006, the drug benefit will deliver substantial savings--a dubious claim, considering the falsified budget numbers. In the interim, seniors are encouraged to use Medicare discount cards, available in June, which are also said to yield a substantial savings. Everyone's a winner, the ads seem to say.

"Not true," says Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, who represents residents of Sonoma and Marin counties. "The only winners of the Republican-sponsored Medicare bill are the insurance industry and pharmaceutical companies. Their victory is at the expense of American's senior citizens, who have paid into the system their entire working lives. Instead of money going to provide a necessary prescription-drug benefit, taxpayers' dollars are going to fill the pockets of the drug companies."

An April 2004 study by the Minority Staff of the House Committee on Government Reform supports the claims of Woolsey and others that the Medicare legislation just doesn't perform as advertised. The study found that a one-month supply of the 10 top selling drugs using the Medicare card cost as much as 60 percent more than did purchasing the same drugs from Canada and other foreign countries via the Internet.

Gloria Rosen of Santa Rosa, 81, has looked at all the choices and found the cheapest prices for her Lipitor and Previcid prescriptions in Canada. The new Medicare rules don't allow such purchases, but for Rosen, the decision was a no-brainer: she's running for the border. "It's very simple," she says, adding that she expects to save $500 a year by purchasing her prescriptions in Canada.

The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), which strongly supported the new Medicare legislation, is now enduring a backlash from angry members. Woolsey led 85 congressional colleagues in resigning their AARP memberships to protest the organization's support of the legislation. According to newspaper reports, more than 60,000 individuals have quit AARP, and many more are not renewing their memberships. The association did not return repeated phone calls from the Bohemian.

Petaluma resident Dr. John Shearer sent in his AARP resignation in a red envelope. He is adamant that the new Medicare law is "a political scheme to privatize Medicare. In 10 to 12 years," he says, "Medicare will no longer be affordable." He's deeply concerned that "pharmaceutical companies are being given free reign with the prices."

According to the Sonoma County Department of Health Services, there are more than 62,000 Sonoma County residents eligible for Medicare, about 13 percent of the population. Thanks to those fancy Medicare ads, many seniors might think they have no choice but to turn to the discount cards when they become available in June.

The card costs $30; free cards will be issued to individual recipients with incomes under $12,569 and couples with incomes under $16,892. Low-income participants are eligible for $600 in assistance annually. So far, the discount cards--offered by 49 different providers, each with its own separate rules and formularies--have generated no savings but plenty of confusion, according to Christine Tschummi, project director for the North Bay Health Insurance Counseling and Advocacy Program.

Rather than just sign up for the discount card, advocates such as Tschummi are advising seniors to "shop around and compare prices." Shirlee Zane, executive director of the Sonoma County Council on Aging, offers the same advice, pointing seniors to the Senior Action Network (www.senioractionnetwork.org), a website featuring information on cheaper generic drugs and name-brand medications available from Canada.

Like many seniors who have shopped around for the cheapest prescription drugs, Jewel Coccellato isn't buying the new Medicare discount card. She says her most affordable option remains buying drugs from Canada.

That appears to be true for many seniors and will undoubtedly continue to make the new Medicare bill a hard sell.

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From the May 26-June 1, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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