Groups plan gatherings to praise, criticize drug benefit

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

LIBERTY, Mo. -- Hershel Clark worked until he was 73 because he needed the insurance to cover his wife's cancer treatments.

On Monday, Hershel, 74, and his wife, Gladys, 69, joined others who lined the streets near a pharmacy President Bush went into before giving a speech at a Liberty school and community center about new Medicare prescription drug discount cards.

As the prescription drug discount cards come under increasing criticism from Democrats, Bush hit the road to tout the program and garner support from seniors like the Clarks.

The Clarks, who clutched flags in the hands as they waited, planned to look into the new drug card. The couple spends an average of $700 to $800 a month on drugs, which their supplemental insurance doesn't cover.

"I hope either the medicine gets cheaper or they have a better deal for the senior citizens," said Gladys Clark, who has been in remission about six months.

The cards are intended to be temporary, effective only until prescription drug insurance under Medicare begins in 2006. They are designed to allow people without prescription drug insurance to benefit from lower prices available through group purchasing.

Consumers must pick from numerous cards with varying benefits, and critics say the program is confusing both customers and pharmacists.

In Missouri, calls to a state-funded hotline that connects seniors with health insurance questions to volunteers have nearly doubled to an average of 80 a day from 45 a day since the Medicare Modernization Act was passed.

The most common question in recent weeks has been what card to sign up for, said Andrew Shea, a spokesman for MissouriPRO, a public and privately funded health care consulting firm that operates the hotline through a grant from the Missouri Department of Insurance.

The state doesn't track how many Missouri seniors have signed up for the cards, said Stacy Wright, the fiscal and administrative manager for Missouri's SenioRx Program, which provides prescription drug coverage for low-income seniors.

"We are currently exploring options on how we can work with the discount card," she said.

Many seniors outside along the route Bush took through Liberty were willing to forgive the confusion as long as something was being done to address the soaring coasts of prescription drugs.

Bob and Norma Howe, both 73, of Gladstone, learned more about the prescription drug benefit during a meeting last week at their church and hoped to benefit.

The couple's monthly drug bill averages $300. To keep their drug costs down, Bob Howe orders two of his wife's drugs from Canada -- Celebrex for arthritis and Fosamex for brittle bones.

Although he hasn't decided on a card, he said: "It's really not as complicated as it appears to be in some of the literature."

Meanwhile, some protesters were outside the community center.

Vesta Frizzell, 65, of Independence, carried a sign critical of the Medicare benefit. She said the prescription drug benefit doesn't go far enough.

"It's a crying shame we don't have national health care for everyone," Frizzell said. "We go abroad and take care of people in disasters, but we should take care of our homeland first. And it can be done."

Other protesters criticized Bush's handling of the war in Iraq. A fabric sign hanging from a house near the center read "War Starts with 'Dubya."'

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