It's not easy being gray. Not when you are one of the more than 3,000 seniors in Gila County who have been exposed to the high cost of prescription drugs since all of the HMOs abandoned us. And while we scramble for relief, the prices just keep climbing.
From 1981 to 1999, prescription drug prices climbed 306 percent while the Consumer Price Index rose only 99 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But who needs statistics? We've all suffered sticker shock when filling a prescription out of pocket.
Health care is big business. We seniors are big consumers. The pharmaceutical companies are dedicated to creating and selling their drugs. Seniors are their primary target.
I counted eight full-page ads for new prescription drugs in a recent general-consumption magazine, for example. None were lifesaving miracles for cancer or AIDS, but competing drugs for osteoarthritis, allergies, osteoporosis, impotence, depression, weight loss, anxiety and diabetes.
It's a no-brainer to connect the dots from direct-to-consumer advertising to higher drug prices and increased sales and profits. There's just one problem. Thousands of seniors may really want to try that newest arthritis pill, but they're no longer likely to pressure their doctor for a prescription when it costs them $2 or $3 a pill instead of a $10 co-pay for a month's supply.
We're on our own, at least for now. Yes, Congress, the president, insurance companies, drug companies, healthcare providers and state leaders are all deeply concerned.
The Republicans in the House of Representatives managed to pass a bill that's not going to fly while the Democrats and everyone else hustle to find a solution that fits their own self-interest. Don't look for a magic pill to end the misery anytime soon. Now's the time for letters, phone calls and e-mails to our representatives. Tell them what you think will work.
What to do in the meantime? Sharpen up your shopping skills, seniors. And remember the mantra: Buyer beware! Here are some Band-Aids you might try:
Medicare supplement (Medigap) plans offered by private insurance companies: Of the 10 plans, only H, I and J offer prescription coverage. All require a $250 deductible and pay only 50 percent of the costs. Plans H and I cost from $2,000 to $2,300 a year and pay a maximum of $1,250 in prescription benefits. Plan J costs about $3,420 a year and maxes out at $3,000.
Discount mail-order companies like the People's Prescription Plan, (800) 944-0909, AAA's Firstline Pharmacy, (800) 284-2850, or AARP's Pharmacy, (800) 665-1164, may offer some lower prices. Call for information.
Internet pharmacies: If you don't have a computer or WebTV, go to the public library or impose on a friend. Three good online sources are Drugstore.com, PlanetRx.com and CVSpharmacy.com. There are dozens more. Another site, healthyhumans.com, will check out the above pharmacies and give you the best prices, saving you the job of checking them separately. Always look for generics, as they are generally much cheaper than the brand-name drugs. Remember to allow for shipping charges when comparing prices to local pharmacy prices. Ask for generics when buying locally, too.
Ask your doctor if he or she can prescribe an alternate drug to treat your condition that's less expensive or has a generic equivalent. Discuss other treatment options with your doctor, too. Don't take offense if you're asked to exercise, lose weight and eat right.
The border solution: It's no secret that some people are going to Mexico (or Canada) to buy prescription drugs at much lower prices. Buying drugs internationally is legal. The Internet can be a source for buying brand-name or generic drugs by mail from Mexico as well as other countries. Proceed at your own risk if you try this.
Kick the drug habit: This option applies only to seniors who are basically healthy, but are taking drugs for non-life-threatening chronic conditions that might be treated in other ways. For these seniors, getting off drugs they've been on for years for minor ailments can have surprising health benefits in addition to saving money. Weaning yourself off drugs takes considerable study, patience and the conviction that it's possible to be pill-free or almost. But don't stop taking any medication prescribed by your doctor without checking with him or her first.
More on how to decrease your dependence on pills next week.
For your information
Seniors whose income falls below a certain level may qualify for Medicaid or other assistance. Counseling is available from the Arizona State Health Insurance Assistance Program at (800) 432-4040.
Other resources for seniors include http://www.medicare.gov or (800) 633-4227 and the Arizona Department of Insurance at (800) 325-2548 for lists of Medigap insurers.
A 28-page report for seniors on the need for Medicare prescription drug coverage prepared by the U.S. House of Representatives prescription Drug Task Force (co-chaired by Rep. Marion Berry, D-AR) can be accessed on the Internet at http://www.house.gov/berry/prescriptiondrugs or obtained by writing Rep. Berry at The House of Representatives, 1113 Longworth HOB, Washington, D.C. 20515.
For the drug companies' point of view, there are news releases and reports on http://www.phrma.org, the Web site for Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.
The Health Care Financing Administration, the agency that oversees Medicare, has an informative Web site at http://www.hcfa.gov.
District 6 Representative J. D. Hayworth's Web site is http://www.house.gov/hayworth. To e-mail any congressional representative, the site is http://www.house.gov/writerep.
Rep. Hayworth's Mesa mailing address is: 1017 S. Gilbert Rd., Suite 203, Mesa, AZ 85204 or you may write him at 1023 Longworth HOB, Washington, D.C. 20515. His toll-free phone number is (800) 847-0467.