Editor's note: This is the second in a two-part series on how seniors on Medicare can cope without insurance coverage for prescription medications.
Seniors on Medicare are facing some tough choices about health-care costs, especially prescription medications, now that all the HMOs in Gila County have announced that they plan to drop their Medicare supplement programs.
As a result, seniors on tight budgets may be tempted to "just say no" when faced with the high out-of-pocket prices for medications they are taking for chronic health problems.
Even though avoiding pharmaceuticals and working toward a more healthful lifestyle can be rewarding in itself, getting hit in the pocketbook can be even more motivating. And it takes strong motivation to become responsible for your own health.
So where do you begin?
First, talk to the physician. Don't worry about how he or she will react to your concerns or your desire to try non-drug alternatives. The image of the doctor who is unsympathetic or hostile to alternative treatments is fading. Some medical doctors are suggesting alternative treatments like acupuncture to patients and herbs and supplements that have been studied and approved for specific ailments, for example, glucosamine for joint health. "The times, they are a-changin'," as the song goes.
The positive side of the current health environment is all about more choices.
Local physician Dr. Mark Ivey says he is all for patients' freedom of choice. Like any caring medical doctor, he is sympathetic to seniors' concerns over the high cost of pharmaceuticals. He is willing to suggest older, cheaper drugs to patients over new, more expensive ones as long as the quality of treatment is acceptable, even though he may point out that the newer drugs are better.
He sees no problem with patients taking their prescriptions to Mexico to be filled. And he'll take time to discuss alternatives with patients, explaining the possible risks of herbals and food supplements that haven't been tested according to the FDA's requirements for pharmaceutical drugs and the lack of assurance of quality control.
Don't stop taking your prescription drugs until you talk to the doctor who prescribed them. Doing so can be dangerous and even deadly in some cases. Be sure to ask about drug/herb interactions. I took my plan for substitutions to my doctor. He approved my plan, and advised me to give the herbals and supplements at least six months to work. I had no life-threatening conditions to worry about, just minor complaints. If your doctor says no, you should find out why, but follow his advice, or get a second opinion before making any changes.
Next, the true test of your resolve: Start a program of regular exercise, proper diet, stress management and any other lifestyle changes you need for your particular medical profile. You may discover, as I did, that these changes alone can work wonders.
In the meantime, start studying. Here are some resources that can help.
Local health food stores
In addition to their large stock of herbals, supplements and foods, Back to Basics and Payson Vita-Health Foods both have a wide selection of books, pamphlets and reports covering all aspects of health.
My favorite is "Prescriptions for Nutritional Healing," by James F. Balch and Phyllis A. Balch, certified nutritionist.
Back to Basics' Jane Baker emphasizes the importance of consulting a doctor about alternative choices.
"We offer information so they have more confidence," she says.
She points out that pharmaceuticals often perform a heroic function when disease has progressed too far to be helped by herbals or supplements.
"Alternatives are good when you can rebuild the body and give it a chance to heal itself," she says.
You can also get information about local alternative health providers and the services they offer, such as massage therapy, exercise classes, naturopathic physicians, chiropractors and herbalists at these stores along with announcements of local health-related community events. Leslie Carney of Payson Vita-Health Foods offers nutritional counseling by appointment.
This vast, free repository of information for both patients and health professionals is invaluable. Search engines like Yahoo can guide you to dozens of sources. Try Web sites like the Mayo Clinic's http://www.mayohealth.org or the National Institutes of Health's http://www.nih.gov.
For particular diseases, try sites like http://www.migraines.org or http://www.osteo.org.
Some alternative sites are http://www.pathfinder.com/drweil (site featuring Dr. Andrew Weil, well-known author) and http://www.alternativemedicine.com. Another, http://www.healthy.net, covers both conventional and alternative issues. Television, magazines and newspapers are excellent sources as well.
The 2000 Women's Wellness Forum last April sponsored by the Mogollon Health Alliance and the Payson Regional Medical Center featured doctors and other health professionals speaking on subjects such as breast care, healthy bones, colon cancer, healthy cooking, managing stress and natural alternatives to menopause. Don't miss next year's Wellness Forum. Support groups and clubs offering ongoing health-related help are usually announced in the newspaper.
Retreat centers such as The Merritt Center and Lodge out of Payson and Fossil Creek Llamas and Hikes on Fossil Creek Road near Strawberry offer health-related seminars and workshops designed to build more healthful bodies and minds.
Growing medicinal herbs
Local herbalist Jack Belmont teaches medicinal herbal gardening and bio-intensive vegetable gardening classes including drying and preparing tinctures and teas from the herbs. He also offers herb walks to identify edible plants and herbs in the wild. Belmont has a book on the subject coming out next spring, he says.
Classes usually meet on Saturdays and take place when enough students sign up. Call him at 474-6245 or write him at P.O. Box 292, Payson, AZ 85547. Belmont's enthusiasm for healthful living is boundless.
"People just don't understand how simple it is to be healthy. They don't believe herbs will work," he says. He's ready to make believers of us all.
More helpful hints
As you learn more about how to nurture your body and listen to it, and change destructive habits to healthy ones, you'll feel more empowered. When you reach the point where you can toss some or all of your prescription bottles in the trash, you may get some pleasant surprises. My severe heartburn vanished overnight when I stopped taking pharmaceutical-strength Ibuprophen for arthritis pain, which meant I could also dump my prescription for Cimetidine that I was taking for the heartburn. You may find that losing weight becomes easier when certain drugs are out of your life.
You may experience some minor withdrawal symptoms like those common to coffee drinkers who stop cold turkey. It's sometimes part of the cleansing process your body is going through, but the withdrawls don't last long.
You might feel more secure if you buy a blood-pressure device to monitor your rate while you make these changes. Ask your doctor to authorize a blood chemistry test if you're worried about changes to your cholesterol count, hormones, thyroid, bone density or other problems after a few months. Or take advantage of the low-cost testing services that periodically come to town.
Herbals rarely produce any side effects. However they can be abused like any other substance, so give them proper respect and follow recommended dosages or servings. If you experience any ill effects from any herbal, stop it at once. Once again, keep your doctor informed about what you are taking and why. Just remember, you're in charge.
Also, try to resist going overboard with supplements. You'll often find a dozen different herbals recommended for just one ailment. You don't have to take them all. If you're not careful, you'll have 30 bottles sitting on your kitchen counter, and you will have spent more money than you would have on your prescriptions.