- The Washington Times - Friday, December 12, 2003

The 17 million American seniors without prescription drug coverage who’ve watched Congress mud-wrestling over Medicare for five months won’t get instant relief even with passage of this landmark legislation.

For the overwhelming majority of seniors, the drug benefit won’t kick in until 2006, although prescription drug discount cards will be available to all Medicare beneficiaries beginning next year.

That will give seniors access to privately negotiated drug discounts the Department of Health and Human Services estimates will provide savings of between 15 percent to 25 percent on most prescription medicines.

And lower-income seniors will get a temporary subsidy of up to $600 a year on their drug discount cards in both 2004 and 2005.

In the meantime, senior citizens can get drug discount cards that offer sizable savings right now from various pharmaceutical companies.

Sadly, many needy seniors are not taking full advantage of these plans. Statistics show less than 3 percent of eligible seniors have registered for these drug discount programs.

The good news is the programs can deliver instant and notable savings on some of the most popular prescription drugs.

These initiatives have served lower-income seniors well for the last two years — helping them obtain proper prescriptions to fight serious illness and ailments. Without these treatments, low-income seniors are likelier to grow sicker, require more emergency room visits, incur more hospitalization and need more surgeries — huge costs that can be prevented with a drug benefit.

Another benefit is that seniors are not forced to rely on online pharmacies or reimported drugs from Canada — avenues that increase the risk of wrong dosages, outdated medicines and actual counterfeits, some of which can be lethal.

The Living Share Card offered by Pfizer, the global pharmaceutical company based in New York City, is a prime example of the kind of discounts seniors can obtain on a wide variety of prescription drugs.

Since it unveiled the program in early 2002, Pfizer has enrolled more than 450,000 Medicare beneficiaries, and has filled more than 3 million prescriptions.

For a flat fee of $15 per prescription, the Living Share Card provides seniors with a 30-day supply of most Pfizer drugs. If you crunch the numbers, you’ll find that saves seniors nearly 70 percent on average retail prices.

And with 98 percent of pharmacies in the United States participating in the program, there’s no reason any eligible senior shouldn’t benefit from this program. More information on this particular program is available at www.pfizer.com.

Other companies and company alliances offer similar plans with similar benefits. The slight differences between the various plans range from eligibility requirements and enrollment fees to pricing structures and discount rates.

Their programs include:

Together RX: The largest of the discount cards by far, with more than 772,000 cardholders, this program allows low-income seniors — singles with annual incomes of less than $28,000 and couples with annual incomes of less than $38,000 — to save upward of 40 percent or more on 170 brand-name medicines. Founded by Abbott Laboratories, AstraZeneca, Aventis, GlaxoSmithKline, Janssen, Novartis and Ortho-McNeil, Together RX claims to have saved needy seniors more than $104 million to date. More information is available on www.togetherrx.com.

The Orange Card: Unveiled in October 2001 by GlaxoSmithKline, the Orange Card allows needy seniors to save 30 percent to 40 percent and, in some cases, more off the usual price of many GSK medicines. More than 150,000 seniors have signed up thus far. More information is available at www.gsk.com or by calling (888) ORANGE6. mLilly Answers: Designed for seniors whose incomes are too high to qualify for Medicaid, this program offers the entire portfolio of Eli Lilly and Co. products. Included are medications for illnesses such as osteoporosis, diabetes, depression and schizophrenia — chronic diseases that afflict nearly 1 in 2 seniors, or nearly 18 million. The program can be accessed on online at www.lillyanswers.com. These private-sector discount drug programs are good for low-income patients, but no program — whether from the government or the private sector — will work if seniors don’t take advantage of it.

The path to more affordable drugs is out there right now; we just need to get more seniors walking on it.

James L. Martin is president of the 60 Plus Association, a senior citizen advocacy group.

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