Self-employed and without any health insurance, Pearl Alleyne exhausted her life savings when she suddenly became ill 10 years ago. Not only were her doctor and hospital bills staggering, but the medicine she needed cost her $75 a month.
“I didn’t buy anything new for myself for five or six years because my illness took everything I owned,” she said.
Not only did she deplete the $20,000 in her IRA, but “I was forced to give my house [in New Jersey] back to the bank and to file for bankruptcy,” she said, adding that she is now living with her son in the Bronx.
Alleyne, 68, is among several hundred members of the Joint Public Affairs Committee who have demonstrated in recent weeks to protest the high cost of prescription drugs.
Members of JPAC, which is sponsored by the Jewish Association for Services for the Aged, a UJA-Federation agency, demonstrated recently outside the Manhattan office of Bristol-Myers Squibb and a Duane Reade pharmacy on Broadway and West 231st Street.
They protested, as well, outside an animal hospital, noting that the same pills for animals cost a fraction of what humans are charged. Their campaign slogan asked that they be “treated like dogs”; some wore cat and dog costumes.
“People without prescription drug coverage are charged as much as seven times more for medicine than pet owners when their pets fall ill,” said Sue Miles of Manhattan. “I am talking about the same drug in the same package.”
She said, for example, that Lanoxin, a heart drug, costs $5.41 “when you get it from the vet, and $39.31 when you get it from your pharmacy.”
“I am fortunate that I don’t have to take many drugs myself, but a lot of my friends have to take medicine for the rest of their lives and they can’t get large quantity discounts,” said Miles, who said she is in her mid-60s.
A month’s supply of Lodine, an arthritis medicine, is $143.24 at the pharmacy, but it is $65.70 when prescribed for dogs, she said.
Miles said she bought a medical plan for $113 a month to cover the 20 percent of medical bills Medicare does not pay but is without coverage for prescription drugs.
For several years, prescription drugs for the elderly have been a top Democratic concern. A year ago, President Bill Clinton, noting that drug prices are rising faster than the rate of inflation, proposed an expansion of the 34-year-old Medicare program to include prescription drugs. To dramatize the issue, House Democrats have even organized bus trips for the elderly to Canada and Mexico, where the same drugs are substantially less expensive.
(Miles noted that the anti-depressant drug Zoloft costs $176.51 for a three-month supply in the U.S., but $114.84 for the same prescription in Canada.)
Republicans rejected Clinton’s plan as too costly and said the problem could be addressed only as part of an overhaul of Medicare. They insisted that for eight years the Clinton administration has been an “obstacle” to reforming the system.
House Republicans this month pushed through their own plan costing $40 billion over five years that provides a prescription drug benefit for Medicare recipients. It would rely on private insurance companies to sell drug coverage policies to the elderly, backed by government subsidies and incentives. Republicans said it avoided a government takeover of health care and did not rely on a huge government bureaucracy.
The prescription drug issue has become a prime topic in the presidential race, with Vice President Al Gore saying his Republican opponent, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, and the Republicans in Congress were tied to the big pharmaceutical companies. He suggested that the drug companies may have “crafted the actual words” of the Republican legislation. Bush generally supports the House Republican plan.
The Democrats insist that the legislation they support is more expansive, relying directly on the Medicare system itself. Gore said insurance companies maintain that the Republican plan simply would not work.
Under the Republican plan, premiums would be $35 to $40 a month. After a $250 deductible, the policies would pay for half of a recipient’s annual drug costs, up to $2,100. Premiums and co-payments would vary from one private drug plan to the next, as long as they met government guidelines.
The Democrats’ proposal, which would cost $255 billion over a decade, would carry no deductible and cover half the cost of drugs, up to $5,000 annually. The premium would start at $25 a month.
Both plans contain subsidies for low-income seniors and protections for those with high drug costs. The Republicans would provide 100 percent drug-cost coverage after an individual paid $6,000. The Gore plan would cover all costs after $4,000 in out-of-pocket expenses.
The JPAC protesters displayed their support at the Duane Reade rally for the Democrats’ bill, which they said would allow them to buy their drugs at the same price as HMOs and the government. And they supported another bill mandating that New York State residents be given the same discount on prescription drugs as HMOs, large insurers, federal agencies and other countries.
Adele Bender, a JPAC member, said seniors “should not have to decide between buying medication, paying rent or buying food. We need a prescription discount bill now.”
Miles said she knows of several seniors who don’t have enough money to buy a month’s supply of medication and end up “cutting the pills in half to get them through the month.”
“If you have crippling arthritis, I don’t think those [cut] pills would be very effective. … It’s not cheerful to be old sometimes.”