ANNAPOLIS – Eloise Abadeey needs her blood pressure medication right now, but says she just can’t afford it.
The 72-year-old Salisbury resident had prescription coverage at one time, but now must pay out-of-pocket for the total of 10 medications she and her husband take. That runs them at least $250 out of their $1,000 monthly Social Security check, and sometimes they can’t stretch the balance far enough to meet the monthly food bill.
“We just can’t afford it, and I think it should be done something about,” said Abadeey.
Abadeey and her husband’s situation is not unusual. By January, 67,000 Maryland seniors will have lost their Medicare prescription drug coverage. Three of four health maintenance organizations providing Medicare drug coverage in Maryland will drop out of the program by next year because federal reimbursements aren’t covering their costs.
In a briefing Tuesday, three General Assembly committees joined to debate ways to make prescription drugs available to more seniors, the uninsured and the poor.
This discussion comes as officials released what they called disappointing news of low enrollment in a stopgap prescription program under CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield. The program was created this summer to provide drug coverage to low-income seniors.
While some officials blame low enrollment on members’ high cost, others said many seniors just don’t know that they’re eligible for such state assistance programs.
“A lot of them just fall between the cracks,” said Carol Humphrey, senior health insurance program coordinator at MAC, an agency on aging in Dorchester, Somerset, Wicomico, and Worcester counties. And many, she said, don’t meet the income caps.
“If you’re one penny over, you do not qualify,” Humphrey said.
Three main proposals are under consideration by lawmakers: expanding the state’s pharmacy assistance program, requiring pharmacies to offer Medicaid prescription rates to Medicare enrollees and controlling the price manufacturers are allowed to charge for their pharmaceuticals.
A fourth proposal, and the only one that met with little opposition from legislators, pharmacies or pharmaceutical manufacturers, is an expansion of MEDBANK, a state program that helps low-income Marylanders get free medicine from manufacturers.
Manufacturers have offered free medicine programs for the last 20 years, but because of complicated and time-consuming paperwork, doctors and patients haven’t taken full advantage of it.
There are two MEDBANK sites in Maryland now – in Towson and Hagerstown – and the proposed $3.6 million expansion would bring the program to other parts of the state.
Bob McEwan, founder of MEDBANK in Maryland, said he hopes to get the expansion through by Jan. 1, when many Medicare patients will lose their coverage. “This would be a great way to help take care of those patients and reduce panic,” said McEwan.
But Delegate Brian K. McHale, D-Baltimore, said it’s unlikely the money will come through in time, even though it’s a good solution to the expected “train wreck.” Federal help for the problem isn’t expected anytime soon, said Georges C. Benjamin, Maryland secretary of Health and Mental Hygiene, even though it’s at the top of the presidential campaign agenda. The politicians would stop talking and start doing, if it was up to Mae Elizabeth Ayers, a Salisbury senior also in drug-financing trouble. “Here I am, 65, and I never ever been through something like this,” she said. Her coverage recently was discontinued and she has, for the first time in her life, had to start paying the full price for prescription drugs. “We ain’t hardly got nothin’ left,” said Ayers. Her message to public officials: “It’s a shame to let our senior citizens go through anything like this.”