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Drug costs a hot issue for seniors

January 15, 2004|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito may have been the most well-known person in the room Wednesday morning, but it was Dr. David Schwartz who drew a big crowd afterward.

After Capito, R-W.Va., explained to a standing-room-only crowd at the Berkeley Senior Center how the recently passed prescription drug bill plan will affect senior citizens, Schwartz stood for several minutes and grilled Capito about various parts of the bill.

Applause followed Schwartz's remarks and after the meeting several people sat and talked with him. One person asked for his e-mail address, to which he replied that he's old-fashioned and does not have one, while another patted his shoulder and joked that she wanted to join his fan club.

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During a question-and-answer session, Schwartz asked Capito why she supported the bill, which gives $70 billion in subsidies to corporations and offers $12 billion for certain HMOs to come back into the system. Those same HMOs abandoned seniors a few years ago when they felt they were no longer able to make a profit, Schwartz said.

"To me, that's not protecting seniors," he said.

Rather than creating a bill that attempts to contain drug company profits, legislators crafted a bill that will add $400 billion over 10 years to the deficit, he said.

"Our children and grandchildren are going to have to pay that debt," Schwartz said.

Responding to Schwartz's numerous charges, Capito said the subsidies were needed to keep companies from dropping coverage to seniors. Subsidies will benefit state health care systems as well, including West Virginia's PEIA system, she said.

Schwartz said he would have liked to have seen a bill that works like the Veteran Affairs' system - where drugs are purchased directly from drug companies, often at greatly reduced prices.

"Hear, hear," someone in the audience cheered.

Capito said she was proud of the bill for which she voted, which will mean one-third of West Virginia's seniors, who are considered to be low-income, will only have to pay a few dollars for prescription drugs. She said bills are constantly "fine-tuned" and that the prescription drug bill should prove to be a step toward greater coverage.

As the crowd dispersed and Capito met one-on-one with seniors, Rose Straley and Judy Grim offered their thoughts.

Both said they appreciated Capito's visit and her attempt to explain the bill, but both said they need someone to explain it in lay terms.

"I don't fully understand it all," Grim said.

Both said the bill could affect them - Grim's husband just turned 65 and she is caring for her mother, while Straley said her husband needs four prescription drugs and she is on two.

"We need something," Straley said.

Using a PowerPoint presentation, Capito addressed several key points of the bill. Enrollment is voluntary and open to everyone, she said.

Although the bill will help anyone reduce the costs of prescription drugs, she said it especially helps low-income seniors, who make up one-third of the people on Medicare.

Qualifying low-income seniors will pay $2 for generic drugs and $5 for brand name drugs, and will not have to pay any deductibles or premiums.

Seniors who are not considered to be low-income will pay a $35 average monthly premium and a $250 yearly deductible. The government will pay for 75 percent of drug costs up to $2,250 and 95 percent of all expenses more than $3,600.

Drug costs between $2,250 and $3,600 will not be covered, creating a gap. Covering the gap would have been ideal, but would have cost too much, Capito said.

When Capito said the plan should be fully in place by 2006, one man in the audience muttered, "We might all be dead by then." "Probably," a woman sitting beside him responded.

Using an on-line calculator, Capito offered some examples of the benefits. A person with an income of $25,000 who spends $3,600 a year on drugs would save $1,800 under the plan, she said. The calculator will be posted on Capito's Web site.

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