Prescription Drug Plans Buyer Beware

Today’s seniors are at the center of a dramatic health care policy debate that has surprised political experts by becoming the focus of the 2000 presidential campaign. Vice President Al Gore insists that seniors are being forced by pharmaceutical companies to choose between medicine and food and he proposes a sweeping government subsidy for seniors’ drug coverage. Texas Gov. George W. Bush is hawking a prescription drug subsidy aimed at the poorest seniors. Drug companies counter that the crisis in prescription drugs is largely caused by government intervention—and that Gore’s plan will ruin what the New York Times called “the last free market for pharmaceuticals” in the world.

Who’s telling the truth? While the answer doesn’t come easily, there is a trail of clues. It begins with a woman named Winifred Skinner.

The 79-year-old retired widow from Des Moines, Iowa, confronted Gore during a campaign stop and proclaimed that she spends most of her days collecting cans to cover both her living expenses and her prescription costs of $230 a month.

Gore was so moved by her tale of woe that he invited her to attend the first presidential debate in Boston, where he told her story and declared that he would fight for universal prescription drug coverage. But when reporters began asking questions about Mrs. Skinner, the widow’s tale grew mighty tall.

It turns out that Mrs. Skinner, who had been planning a trip to Florida, was shuttled to the Boston debate in a Winnebago with her poodle, Bridget, which Skinner affectionately described as "the only family I've got". Along the way, a question emerged: precisely how does a struggling senior afford a poodle, a motor home and trips to Florida and Boston?

Gore’s campaign had paid for her travel and a previously unmentioned wealthy son—who lives on an 80-acre ranch—has repeatedly offered to support his mother. Skinner has plenty of family—she’s a great-grandmother—but she has steadfastly refused her son’s generosity, declaring: “I’m no moocher”. Apparently, the retired homeowner has no problem mooching from strangers who pay taxes.

One senior wants no part of Gore’s prescription drug subsidy. Rita Lewis, an 81-year-old retired secretary, takes five prescription drugs.

“I’ve had three hip replacements,” she said triumphantly when asked about her health. The California resident might seem a predictable proponent of Gore’s drug plan: Lewis voted for Clinton in 1996 and says she would do it again. But Lewis, like many seniors, is happy with her drug coverage, which she says cost less than $1,000 per year, and she doesn’t like Gore’s plan.

“When the government takes over,” she said, “people get lost. I just don’t trust the government to handle drugs.”

New Yorker Larry Dunn, 62, doesn’t necessarily agree. Computer programmer Dunn said his mother, who recently died at the age of 94, was taking eight prescribed pills a day toward the end of her life and he’s sure many seniors are forced to choose between drugs and life’s basic necessities. Dunn cited a friend who shares his interest in square dancing.

But, when asked about the supposed predicament, Dunn’s friend, Terry Smith, 74, said her drug costs are affordable. “As far as prescriptions go, I’m a very fortunate person,” she said. “I take one drug for osteoporosis.”

For those paying more than Smith for drugs, cost is relative. Americans spend 1.2 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) on drugs, compared with France’s 1.6 percent of GDP on drugs and Japan’s 1.5 percent. Canadians spend the same amount as Americans.

Still, Vice President Gore and others accuse the pharmaceutical companies of gouging the elderly. As an example, Gore cited his mother-in-law, who spends $108 a month for the arthritis drug Lodine. Gore said his black Labrador retriever, also diagnosed with arthritis, receives the same drug through a veterinarian's prescription for less than $39 a month.

The facts don’t back Gore’s point; The New York Times reported that, while there is a price disparity between Lodine and the canine version, the capsules come in different sizes. By the milligram, the drugs’ prices are much closer.

It’s true: America’s drug costs are rising. It’s also true that America’s seniors are reaping the reward of superior pharmaceuticals, living longer and enjoying the most active geriatric lives in history. When Al Gore, and, to a lesser extent, George W. Bush, denounces the rising cost of pharmaceuticals, he denounces the rising standards such purchases provide. Like the story of Mrs. Skinner collecting her aluminum cans, the cost—and proposed regulation—of prescription drugs is a cautionary tale.

This 2000 interview was published in the Detroit News, Buffalo News, and Los Angeles Daily News.

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