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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, March 1, 2002

Island Voices
Priority No. 1: drug coverage

Joe DeMattos is associate state
director for AARP Hawai'i.

Both the state and federal governments must address the high cost of prescription medicine and the many who have no insurance.

Ruby Silva of Wai'anae wonders every month if she will be able to pay $654 out-of-pocket for prescription medications she and her husband need and still pay for life's other necessities. She is not alone.

We hear from our AARP members every day that people age 50-plus in Hawai'i are paying too much for prescription drugs and for supplemental drug coverage woefully inadequate to meet their needs.

At last count, over 220,000 people in Hawai'i were without prescription drug coverage. Nearly 70,000 of them, both elderly and disabled, are on Medicare. That's why AARP made adding affordable prescription drug coverage to Medicare our No. 1 national legislative priority.

President Bush made a good start by calling for Medicare drug coverage. Now we have to make it happen by allocating enough money this year for a drug benefit that has real value. Congress must include in its fiscal 2003 budget resolution at least as much funding as it set aside for a drug benefit last year.

In addition to working in the national arena to make things right, there is much we can do here at home, working with our state Legislature. As of June 2001, 29 states established some version of State Pharmacy Assistance. During various legislative sessions last year, over 44 states considered such programs; in the end, some of those states took a wait-and-see attitude while waiting for federal relief and Medicare reform.

In 2001, Rep. Roy Takumi introduced legislation to establish a state system that would create a purchasing pool and price-reduction program for the more than 220,000 without drug coverage. But again, at the time, many of us hoped that the feds would solve the problem. Takumi's bill failed.

At off-season hearings held throughout the state by Sen. Ron Menor last summer, it became clear that some form of state assistance was desperately needed. At the hearings, we met and listened to the personal accounts of ILWU retirees in Hilo; the baby-boomer adult who moved back to Kaua'i to care for and advocate for her mom; the disabled mother in Maui who, as a Medicare recipient with no access to drug coverage, must choose between the medication that keeps her alive and food for her kids.

Due in large part to what we learned from going out into the community, AARP worked with Menor, Takumi and their colleagues to put forward the Hawai'i Rx Assistance Program.

The program would allow people without drug coverage who are now paying full retail for prescriptions to purchase their drugs at Medicaid prices — taking a $100 prescription down closer to $60.

Best of all, the Hawai'i Rx Assistance Program would likely require less than $1 million to establish. Passing legislation to establish the Hawai'i Rx Assistance Program is the right thing to do because it would get prescription drugs into the hands of the people who need them at costs they can afford.

Working for the prescription drug benefit on the national front is also the right thing to do.

Some say we can't do a Medicare drug benefit this year because the economy is soft. Others believe that, in an election year, they can blame the other party for lack of action. But AARP is saying: "Don't go there." Our members are watching. The cost of inaction will be great.

Mrs. Silva and all those without drug coverage in Hawai'i shouldn't have to wait any longer. Whether that means ensuring that everyone can be protected from being wiped out financially by drug costs or that all beneficiaries at least have access to meaningful discounts, we must make progress this year.

Thirty-seven million people on Medicare throughout the nation; 220,000 without drug coverage in Hawai'i. Taking action is the right thing to do.