WASHINGTON- Maryland activists for the elderly welcome Pfizer’s new prescription drug card for low-income senior citizens, but say it will only help a fraction of those who need pharmacy coverage.
“This continues to be a Band-Aid approach to a real problem,” said Michael Lachance, legislative liaison for the Maryland Department of Aging. “What we really need is a meaningful Medicare pharmacy benefit plan.”
Until then, however, Lachance and others said they will recommend discount card programs like Pfizer’s to seniors who can benefit from such plans.
The Pfizer Share Card Program, introduced by the pharmaceutical giant last week, will offer low-income senior citizens monthly prescriptions for any of nine Pfizer drugs at a cost of $15 each.
Anyone 65 or older, or otherwise enrolled in Medicare, with no prescription drug coverage and an income below $18,000, or joint income below $24,000, can qualify for the card. Pfizer said more than 85,000 Maryland seniors will be eligible for the plan.
Pfizer will make the card available from March 1 until Congress establishes drug benefits through Medicare.
Other drug companies recently introduced similar programs for the elderly. Both GlaxoSmithKline and Novartis A.G. offer 25 percent discounts on their drugs to people in their programs. According to published reports, Glaxo has enrolled 20,000 people for its Orange Card and Novartis has received 2,500 applications.
Pfizer’s program has stricter income requirements, but offers the drugs at about 75 percent of the average retail price.
Frank Bailey, director of AARP Maryland, said seniors who meet Pfizer’s criteria will probably take advantage of the program. But only if they are aware of it.
“Not everyone who is eligible will hear about it and not everyone who hears about it will apply,” he said.
Bailey said only low-income seniors in Maryland who chose to get into the program and use the Pfizer drugs available can benefit from the card. For $15 per drug each month, Pfizer plans to offer nine of the 50 most-prescribed medicines for Medicare enrollees, including Lipitor, Norvasc, Zoloft, and Zyrtec.
Cass Naugle, the executive director of the Alzheimer’s Association Central Maryland Chapter, said she will announce the plan in the next Alzheimer’s Association newsletter — the plan will include Aricept, a drug for people with Alzheimer’s disease that usually costs about $120.
While Pfizer’s discount card would make available one of four prescription drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration for people with Alzheimer’s disease, Naugle said the card will really only help some of the most needy in Maryland.
Insurance does not cover many services needed by people with Alzheimer’s, and Naugle said families without prescription coverage often have to choose between getting relief from 24-hour care or getting a drug that makes those with the disease “a little bit better, a little bit longer.”
The Alzheimer’s Association continues to encourage its advocates to call Congress and the president to promote a Medicare prescription drug plan, Naugle said.
Craig Williams, spokesman for Rep. Bob Ehrlich, R-Timonium, predicts Congress will act on a Medicare prescription plan this year. He called Pfizer’s plan a “corporate solution to a public problem,” and a step in the right direction.
As the cost of prescription drugs continues to rise three times faster than the annual inflation rate, Bailey said “the burden of low-cost drugs falls on all people. This is not a substitute for real prescription drug coverage through Medicare.”
The state began offering its own prescription discount program for low- income seniors last year and has already enrolled 25,000 people, said Pamela Causey, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Aging. The program will be capped at 30,000 members.
Recipients of the Maryland pharmacy discount, who would not be eligible for the Pfizer Share Card, pay a $10 monthly premium and $10 to $35 co-payments depending on the drug.
CVS, with 172 locations in Maryland, and Wal-Mart, with 32, both agreed to honor the Pfizer Share Card. Pfizer intends to sign up more drug stores and independent pharmacies.
Pfizer estimates 7 million people in the country will be eligible for the card and plans to enroll 1 million this year.