- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 24, 2007

“Need help with health care costs?” asks the plain-looking ad on the Metro bus.

The phone number on the bottom probably belongs to the Washington D.C. Pharmaceutical Resource Center, a branch of Catholic Community Services, which contracts with the D.C. government to help hundreds of city residents pay for their prescription drugs.

When the program began in 2003 it mainly helped senior citizens with their drugs costs, but with the advent of the new Medicare prescription drug program, known as Part D, the resource center’s mission is undergoing a dramatic shift.

Today, the nonprofit program is refocusing its mission to assist low-income residents.

“We are expecting a much lower enrollment number this year as a result of Part D. It’s a sea change in our target population,” said Ernest Igwacho, a patient service representative who has been with the resource center since it opened at 1001 Lawrence St. NE. “It’s no longer a fixed group. When we started, it was very clear who needed help and we knew how to target senior citizens, but it’s not as easy to get to younger people who may also need help.

“There are many people out there who can’t afford health care insurance or their employers don’t offer it; that is who we want to reach,” Mr. Igwacho said.

The average 30-day prescription for cancer drugs now cost nearly $1,600 and can run as high as $10,000, according to a recent report by Express Scripts, a St. Louis pharmacy-benefit management company.

Roselle Beharie, 67, takes 10 different drugs to treat diabetes, arthritis, high cholesterol and a heart condition that required bypass surgery last year.

The Northeast resident signed up for the new Medicare prescription drug benefit but her drug co-payments still add up to about $500 a month, which she cannot afford on her limited income.

Even before the Medicare drug program started, Miss Beharie turned to the D.C. Pharmaceutical Resource Center for help.

“They are very important to me, they pay for everything,” she said. “The money I have has to go toward the mortgage and gas bills.”

To participate in the drug program, city residents — including noncitizens — cannot be eligible for other prescription drug assistance through Medicaid or the DC HealthCare Alliance, a city-run program that provides medical services for people who lack insurance. Household income must not exceed $40,000 for a family of two.

Drugs are donated to the center by pharmaceutical companies including Pfizer Inc. and Merck & Co. The center makes sure the drugs are delivered directly to the patient’s doctor or hospital.

While providing District residents essential medicines, the center is also saving the city money.

“This is a very important program because, if the center was not picking up these cases, then the city would probably have to pay for their drug costs,” said Desmond Yorke, program manager for the Health Care Safety Net at the D.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

In 2006, the center enrolled around 1,000 District residents whose incomes averaged $755 a month. Enrollment in the program has been steadily increasing from the 545 persons who received help in 2003, the first year the program started.

The center received nearly $700,000 in funding from the city last year, but Mr. Yorke said he expected that subsidy to decline to about $250,000 this year because of the enhanced Medicare drug benefits D.C. residents are receiving.

“We are not expecting enough to put out an advertising blitz throughout the city,” said Ms. Lawrence, who oversees the program.

So the center will continue its austere advertising campaign at bus stops and Metro stations.

“We don’t have a lot in the budget for advertising,” said Peggy Lawrence, senior health care manager at the Health Care Network. “Those ads you see on trains and buses is about it.”

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