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Gaming funds sought for drugs

July 19, 1999|By BRENDAN KIRBY

Senior citizens advocates have asked the Washington County Gaming Commission to come up with money to start a program to help poor retirees pay for medicine.

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Pointing to the escalating costs of prescription drugs, the Washington County Commission on Aging has applied for a $100,000 grant from the Gaming Commission to start a drug program.

"The cost of drugs to seniors who have no coverage is at least twice as much as to preferred customers who buy in bulk," said Frederick F. Otto, the executive director of the Commission on Aging. "Many seniors are hard-pressed to make decisions between food and properly regimented medication."

Fern Rohrer, 72, of Boonsboro, knows about those choices. She said she had a trick for making medicine last longer.

"Every other day, you take your medicine. But you're supposed to be taking them every day," she said.

Rohrer, who lives on Schoolhouse Court, said she had realized it is dangerous not to take her pills every day.

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Rohrer said she takes two different kinds of pills for high blood pressure, two heart medicines, cholesterol pills and other medication. The cost of the medication is almost $200 a month.

Rohrer said she goes without luxuries. "You're just existing. You're not living," she said.

Commission on Aging officials will make their case for funding at a Gaming Commission hearing Aug. 11.

The Gaming Commission distributes gambling revenue collected from taverns, restaurants and private clubs that offer tip jar games. The commission in September will make its decisions for the next round of funding.

Under the proposal, the Commission on Aging would hire a part-time coordinator for about $10,000 to administer the program.

The plan is for Washington County residents age 60 and older who meet the program's income eligibility requirements to receive partial reimbursement for prescription drugs.

Currently, 909 Washington County senior citizens receive some sort of prescription drug assistance, according to the Maryland Pharmacy Assistance Program.

That program, which has 34,175 recipients statewide, requires a $5 co-payment and pays for long-term maintenance drugs, according to program manager Paul Roeger.

To qualify, single seniors must have incomes of less than $784 a month and $3,750 or less in assets, excluding a home and a car. The cutoff for couples is $850 monthly income and $4,500 in assets.

Roeger said the program gets about 5,000 applications a month. There are few places he can send those who do not qualify, he said.

Otto said his office administers an emergency fund that helps seniors in need pay for necessities such as electricity and medicine. But he said it is important to have a separate program that focuses exclusively on medication costs.

He estimated the Washington County program could help about 100 senior citizens in its first year if the Gaming Commission fully funds the request. He said the need is far greater.

"I think we're going to find out that there are more than 100 out there," Otto said.

Paul Sweeney, president of Quality First Insurance in Hagerstown, said the number probably is in the thousands, particularly since CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield's announcement that it will no longer offer coverage to Washington County residents.

"It's something that really needs to be done now," said Sweeney, who was on the committee that prepared the Gaming Commission application. "We're going to try to help people who fall in between."

Sweeney sees the problem first-hand. He sells supplemental insurance to recipients of Medicare, the federal health program for seniors. "Medigap" programs pay for the portion of hospital and doctor bills that Medicare does not cover.

Few Medigap programs cover medicine costs, however, and those that do are expensive and carry restrictions.

The Washington County proposal sets an income limit of $1,000 a month and an asset limit at $5,000. It would carry a $10 co-payment per prescription and a $100-per-month cap.

Sweeney said the proposal would benefit a married couple by counting the income for each partner as half of the couple's combined income.

"The state program penalizes married couples," he said.

The program would be available only to county seniors who are not eligible for any other assistance.

"It's that wedge population who don't have access to private insurance and aren't covered by the state program, who just simply cannot afford their medication," said state Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, who formed the committee that came up with the proposal.

Specifics of the proposal hinge on how much money the Commission on Aging receives. The Gaming Commission often gives less than organizations request. Officials said they will work with whatever amount they receive.

"Every little bit helps. I would be happy with anything," Shank said.

Proponents said they view the Gaming Commission request as seed money to get the program off the ground.

"But then, we're going to have to get the funds from other sources," Sweeney said.

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