Bill or Canada are seniors' only drug options

Sixty people over age 60 gathered at Oak Harbor Senior Center Thursday to hear what Congressman Rick Larsen had to say about prescription drug benefits and the future of Medicare. They also came to speak their mind.

The forum took place on the same day that Larsen made a stop on South Whidbey to talk about his support for keeping Whidbey Island Naval Air Station off the 2005 base closure list. But while in Oak Harbor, which is home to the base, Larsen chose to spend most of his time addressing senior medical issues.

Those at the forum asked the Second District representative how a proposed prescription drug bill could affect their ability to purchase drugs in Canada; what could be done to lower drug costs in the U.S.; whether there would be other cuts, such as for cancer treatment; and whether they would be kicked off other insurance plans if the government provides better coverage under Medicare.

Larsen voted against the House version of legislation this June aimed at providing prescription drug care under Medicare, calling it a "'63 VW Beetle" of a plan. Or as one senior audience member said, "The House plan stinks."

Larsen told the group he voted against the House proposal because it "threatens to privatize Medicare, fails to provide an affordable and straightforward benefit to seniors, and fails to rein in the high cost of prescription drugs."

In a tag board presentation he outlined his drug benefit wish list as being available to all, affordable, and guaranteed, with no huge gaps in coverage. Within the Medicare program, Larsen favors a plan that is not separate and privatized, forcing seniors into health maintenance organizations.

In comparing the House and Senate prescription drug bills, Larsen said while the House bill pays 20 percent of drug costs up to $2,000 after a $250 deductible, the Senate bill pays 50 percent of costs up to $4,500 after a $275 deductible. With the House bill, there is a gap in coverage until drug costs go over $4,900, then Medicare pays 100 percent. With the Senate bill there is a gap until costs go over $5,813, then Medicare pays 90 percent.

Larsen passed out doughnut holes to illustrate a feature of both bills called the "doughnut hole." Under the House bill seniors continue to pay a monthly premium plus 100 percent of drug costs from $2,001 to $4,900. The Senate bill has seniors paying a monthly premium and 100 percent of drug costs from $4,501 to $5,814. Larsen said 47 percent of all Medicare beneficiaries would fall into the House "doughnut hole," while 12 percent would be in this category under the Senate bill.

Most dramatically, the House plan "changes Medicare as we know it," Larsen said. Under the House plan, in 2010 Medicare will be forced to compete with private plans such as HMOs, and seniors who stay in traditional Medicare could face premiums as much as 25 percent higher. The Senate version does not have a similar provision.

Seniors pay more in Island County

The high cost of prescription drugs in the United States was foremost on the minds of the assembled seniors.

Larsen presented a report he had commissioned which showed seniors in his district pay "far more" for prescription drugs than seniors in six other countries: Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United Kingdom. For example, a monthly supply of the cholesterol-reducing drug Zocor costs $129.53 here, while in France the same drug is $37.20. Closer to home, a one-year supply of Prevacid purchased in the United States costs almost $1,000 more than the same prescription in Canada.

Some seniors in Island County have resorted to traveling to Canada to get their prescriptions filled, although technically it is illegal. Larsen said with the system as it is, he can't blame them.

"No responsible elected official wants to arrest seniors going to Canada to buy drugs," he said.

Larsen cited the government's ability to regulate and reduce the price of drugs when they have to.

"It seems to me that if they can regulate the price of Cipro during the anthrax scare, they can regulate them for seniors with health concerns every day," he said.

Both the House and Senate bills prohibit the Secretary of Health and Human Services from negotiating lower drug prices. That fact didn't sit well with any of the seniors, who challenged what one senior called the "stupid rich pharmaceuticals" to lower their prices to an affordable level.

Larsen reminded them that many seniors are living healthy lives because of pharmaceutical companies, but that Congress was working to balance research and development costs with affordability.

"I don't believe we have achieved that with these bills," he said.

What Larsen called a major flaw of the House bill was brought up by senior Richard Anable, who called himself a cancer victim. Anable said hidden in the House bill were provisions to reduce funding for cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy and cancer care centers.

"It makes no sense," Anable said.

Larsen agreed.

"That's wrong," he said, "and it's why I voted against it."

Larsen urged those in attendance to talk to others, and let their representatives in Congress know how they feel.

The House and Senate could come up with a compromise Medicare prescription drug bill by September.

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