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CANDIDATES DIFFER ON WAYS TO CHECK SOARING DRUG COSTS

This is the latest in an occasional series focusing on the issues,

 

records and platforms of the state's candidates for governor.

 

Today's installment focuses on health care.

 

 

Carl and Irene Aldridge spend more than $400 on prescription drugs

 

every month. Irene, 70, has diabetes and is recovering from heart surgery.

 

Carl, 78, a retired dry wall installer, has a lung condition brought on by

 

years of exposure to asbestos.

 

 

The $400 covers only a portion of the St Albans couple's drug

 

  • eeds. The Aldridges depend on Health Right of Charleston for the
  •  

    remaining medications they can't afford.

     

     

    "If we had to pay for all the medications we need every month, we

     

    couldn't afford to buy groceries or pay our utility bills," Irene said

     

    during a meeting of AARP in Charleston this summer.

     

     

    "Please help us with our medication bills."

     

     

    The Aldridges' plea is echoed by millions of people across West

     

    Virginia and the nation this election year.

     

     

    Their sentiments are not lost on the state's candidates for

     

    governor.

     

     

    Four gubernatorial candidates agree that drug prices have

     

  • oared beyond affordability for many seniors and other West Virginians
  •  

    with limited finances.

     

     

    The four candidates agree something needs to be done to remedy

     

    the problem. But they differ on ways to achieve that goal.

     

     

    Major party candidates, incumbent Republican Gov. Cecil

     

    Underwood and Democratic challenger U.S. Rep. Bob Wise, use the issue in

     

    their television campaign ads.

     

     

    "He's helping seniors save on prescription drugs," says the off-camera

     

  • arrator in Underwood's ad.
  •  

     

    Wise's ad says, "He's going to take on the big drug companies

     

    and end the rip-off. He'll cut prescription drug costs so

     

  • eniors won't have to choose between buying groceries and the medicine
  •  

    they need."

     

     

    Underwood's focus has been on taking advantage of existing programs

     

    offered by pharmaceutical companies.

     

     

    On July 15, the governor announced a plan to help low-income seniors

     

    get prescription drugs by using drug manufacturers' giveaways. He

     

    dubbed the program the Senior Prescription Assistance Network and said it

     

    would help seniors apply for free and reduced-cost medications offered by

     

    drug companies.

     

     

    Gaylene Miller, commissioner of the state Bureau of Senior Services,

     

  • aid the plan would take about $8 million of existing state lottery money
  •  

    to pay for salaries and other compensation to new state workers in each

     

    county. Another $2 million will be needed to cover administrative

     

    costs.

     

     

    "The plan would have at least one state employee in every county to

     

    help eligible seniors with the paper work to apply for free and low-cost

     

    drugs," Miller

  • aid.
  •  

     

    Many pharmaceutical companies offer commonly-used drugs at no cost or

     

    reduced costs, but the rules for eligibility and time limitations

     

    of the benefits are different for each company.

     

     

    Workers in Barbour, Tucker and Randolph counties - where the plan has

     

    been operating as a pilot since July - say seniors often need help with

     

    deciphering and filling out complex forms required by drug

     

    manufacturers.

     

     

    Some state money would also be used for emergency drug

     

    purchases, Miller

  • aid.
  • "It takes four to six weeks for the manufacturers

     

    programs to kick in, so some money will be set aside for seniors'

     

    immediate needs."

     

     

    Two days after Underwood's SPAN announcement, he appointed a 15-member

     

    task force to study the feasibility of the plan and to study other

     

    possible options for short-term relief for seniors.

     

     

    The plan, now in the governor's hands, agrees with Underwood's original

     

    idea of working with drug manufacturers on existing programs.

     

    Underwood recently assigned the task force to work on a long-term plan,

     

    which is due Jan. 1.

     

     

    Miller emphasized that SPAN is a short-term solution. "Should Congress

     

    enact a prescription assistance program as part of Medicare or create some

     

    other national initiative, the focus of this program would be reviewed,"

     

    Miller

  • aid.
  •  

     

    Also, manufacturers programs have time limits. Some are non-renewable

     

    and some require patients to fill out a new set of forms after 30, 60 or

     

    120 days.

     

     

    Wise says his own plan involves a less cozy relationship with

     

    drug manufacturers.

     

     

    "Underwood wants to hire a person in every county to help seniors seek

     

    rebates," Wise

  • aid.
  •  

     

    "I come at the problem differently," he said in August after his annual

     

    Senior Citizens Convention in Charleston.

     

     

    "Drug company prices are simply too high and no one is

     

  • egotiating on behalf of seniors to lower them."
  •  

     

    Wise said he wants to negotiate a deal with pharmaceutical companies to

     

    give West Virginia seniors the same discounts health-care facilities,

     

    insurance companies and other large organizations receive.

     

     

    "Maine and Massachusetts have passed laws saying they will pool our

     

    Medicare recipients in order to receive discounts. We should be doing the

     

  • ame here - negotiating to get discounts for our seniors," Wise
  • aid.
  •  

     

    Wise's campaign spokesman, Mike Plante, added, "He'll do it by sitting

     

    down with the drug companies and holding their feet to the fire to

     

    get better drug prices."

     

     

    Plante said Wise has not said what he would do if the drug

     

    companies refuse to negotiate.

     

     

    "All I can say is that he is willing to play hardball, but a good

     

  • egotiator is not going to tip his hand before going to the table," he
  •  

  • aid.
  •  

     

    Wise's record in Congress is consistent with his promise to not hand

     

    out favors to insurance and pharmaceutical industries.

     

     

    He voted against a Republican-backed bill last year to provide

     

    prescription drug coverage for Medicare beneficiaries that was

     

    based on Medigap private insurance policies. Many other Democrats also

     

    voted against the bill, saying the proposal did not apply to all Medicare

     

    beneficiaries.

     

     

    According to the National Teachers Federation the bill contained no

     

    effective control over rising drug costs and allowed

     

    insurers to exclude expensive drugs and eliminate entire geographic areas

     

    from coverage.

     

     

    Congress is expected to vote on another Medicare prescription

     

    drug program by the end of the year.

     

     

    Mountain Party candidate Denise Giardina says the state needs to look

     

    at ways to make prescription drugs affordable for the working poor,

     

  • ot just the elderly.
  •  

     

    In a telephone interview with the Gazette last month, she said, "I

     

    don't see the administration doing anything about that."

     

     

    She said Underwood's recent cash awards to area senior centers for

     

    prescription drug assistance is like "putting your finger in the

     

    dike."

     

     

    Giardina also criticized Wise's plan. "He's saying he'll negotiate, but

     

    he's not giving any specifics."

     

     

    Giardina said negotiating with the drug manufacturers requires

     

    using "a big stick" and would work only if the threat of price controls

     

    was used as an incentive.

     

     

    She said she favors pressuring Congress to allow states the ability to

     

    purchase American-made drugs from other countries. These drugs are often

     

    cheaper than the same drugs sold in the United States.

     

     

    "We should be looking at ways for people to band together as a

     

    purchasing block to buy prescription drugs," she

  • aid.
  • "The state should

     

    be helping people do that."

     

     

    Libertarian Bob Myers believes in a cyber solution to high drug

     

    costs. He recommends that people buy from the Internet.

     

     

    "I believe in free markets," Myers told the Gazette in an interview in

     

    September. "It's the government that has caused the high cost of drugs.

     

    The FDA's unreasonable bureaucracy has driven up the price."

     

     

    Myers said that the Internet is a competitive market tool that

     

    consumers should use. "Anybody can order prescription drugs over the

     

    Internet at a reduction in cost of 20 percent to 25 percent."

     

     

    Those who do not have home computers or access to the Internet can go

     

    to a public library, Myers

  • aid.
  • "All the major libraries in the state

     

    have computers with access to the Internet, or they are getting them

     

    quickly," he

  • aid.
  •  

     

    Myers did not outline a specific plan for seniors who are unable to use

     

    computers or cannot afford to buy medications, even from the Internet.

     

    "There may be cases where people just don't have the money for drugs and

     

    that could be handled by another program, but by and large the free market

     

    will take care of everything."

     

     

    To contact staff writer Martha Leonard, use e-mail or call 348-1254.

     

     


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