J.R. Connell spends about $8,000 a year on prescription drugs for himself and his wife. But instead of buying the medicine in the United States, Connell saves thousands of dollars each year getting it in Canada. Or Mexico. Or Italy.
Under the new Medicare program, however, purchasing prescription drugs from other countries, where they can be up to 70 percent cheaper than in the United States, would be a federal crime.
“I would have to quit taking some of the pills I’ve been taking,” said Connell, who lives in Columbia.
The Medicare Prescription Drug Improvement and Modernization Act of 2003, a bill President Bush signed into law in December, is receiving much criticism across the nation, including here in Columbia.
Rallying the troops
Local opponents of the new Medicare program will meet today at the Columbia Public Library for a “Repeal the Bill” rally. The event will be moderated by Pat Danner, health chairwoman of the League of Women Voters of Columbia-Boone County, and is open to the public.
The rally is sponsored by eight national and community organizations, including Concerned Citizens of Mid-Missouri and the National Association of Retired and Veteran Railway Employees.
Mary Hussmann of Grass Roots Organizing said the event is aimed at spreading awareness of the bill, which she said will have “dramatic” and “earth-shattering” effects on the Medicare system. Medicare is a government program that provides health insurance to people over age 65 who qualify for the program.
GRO started a petition effort in January that asks the president and Congress to repeal the bill. More than 1,100 people from 67 communities in mid-Missouri have signed the petition so far, surpassing organizers’ goal of one signature for every page in the 1,045 page bill.
“The more you look at this bill,” Hussmann said, “the more it’s disappointing. But that’s too mild of a term.”
Bill changes payment plan
Instead of keeping Medicare under one plan, the bill calls for different plans in each area, with each plan using different formularies, which are lists of prescription drugs that would be available. Hussmann said the use of different plans and formularies could be harmful to seniors.
“You are totally out of pocket for any drug that’s not on the formulary of the plan,” she said. “If the drugs aren’t on the plans in your area, well, it’s your rainy day.”
The new plan also denies Medicaid, which is available to poor and disabled people, to those who are also on Medicare. This means that some Medicaid benefits, like the requirement that pharmacists fill prescriptions even if patients can’t make the co-payment, would no longer be available if a person also is on Medicare.
Columbia resident Phyllis Ward is eligible for both Medicaid and Medicare. Ward said she’s worried that some of the medication she’s currently receiving from Medicaid won’t be available on the formularies available under her Medicare plan.
“I have multiple serious illnesses that require expensive drugs,” Ward said. “There’s no way I will be able to pay for any medication that doesn’t fall under the formulary.”
Ward said she’s also concerned about the complexity of the bill and the fact that many seniors will have trouble understanding every aspect of it.
“This bill is unacceptable to us,” she said. “It’s very confusing and complicated.”
'Doughnut hole' baffles bill's opponents
Another problem, Hussmann said, is what’s become known as “the doughnut hole.” Medicare recipients must spend between $250 and $2,250 on drugs to receive 75 percent coverage and more than $5,100 before receiving 95 percent coverage. But those who spend between $2,250 and $5,100 will receive no assistance at all.
“(Those in the doughnut hole) get absolutely no coverage whatsoever,” Hussmann said. “What kind of sense is that?”
Opponents are also critical of the new program’s cost: $534 billion — which is $134 billion more than President Bush’s original estimate. Hussmann said all taxpayers, not only those on Medicare, should be upset.
“If that amount of money was necessary to give total assistance to our elderly, I wouldn’t be that unhappy with the bill,” Hussmann said.
Supporters of the program argue that it will provide modern medicine to seniors and increase payments to doctors and hospitals in rural areas. Proponents also say the plan encourages competition that will eventually lower prescription drug prices.
The American Association of Retired Persons supported the bill, but at least 45,000 members of the organization — including Danner and Hussmann — have quit over the endorsement.
“I was so upset, I tore up my AARP card,” Danner said.
The rally will be followed by a march to Rep. Kenny Hulshof’s office. Hulshof voted in favor of the bill in November. Marchers plan to deliver the petitions and a video, “See Our Faces, Hear Our Voices.”
Hussmann said that, unless the bill is repealed, traditional Medicare will no longer exist in 10 years.
“I believe by the time I get there, Medicare will be destroyed,” she said.