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COSTLY DRUGS TAXING SENIORS CHEAPER PILLS FROM CANADA A LIFESAVER FOR FIXED-INCOME PEOPLE.

Byline: Dana Bartholomew Staff Writer

California lawmakers pledged to halt soaring prescription drug costs last week by pushing legislation that would allow the state to import cheaper drugs from Canada.

But many San Fernando Valley seniors aren't waiting for Sacramento's legal remedies.

``We're doing it anyway. We're ordering from Canada,'' said Mitzi Greenspan, 74, of Woodland Hills, who with her husband strains to pay for prescriptions that eat up a third of their monthly income.

``Do you know how many people are doing it? They couldn't put us all in jail.''

The Greenspans and many other seniors are dealing with high drug costs by importing from Canada, cutting pills in half to stretch prescriptions, selling their homes or forgoing much-needed home repairs.

Less fortunate seniors regularly have to make a choice between medicine and food.

Relief from the federal government's Medicare Reform Act, which will cover the cost of some prescription drugs for seniors, is nearly two years off. So pressure is building to open a discount pipeline to the Great White North - where a combination of controlled prices and a favorable exchange rate makes drugs about 40 percent cheaper on average for Americans.

Two bills were announced this week by California lawmakers that would save the state at least $30 million in drug costs for prisons, hospitals and state institutions and untold millions for consumers.

Under the bills, drafted separately by Assemblyman Dario Frommer, D- Glendale, and Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, D-San Francisco, the state would also set up a Web site that would help consumers buy drugs through certified Canadian pharmacies. It would also launch an antitrust probe against drug companies that withhold medicine from Canadian pharmacies that sell drugs to Americans.

California is following the lead of seven states, including New Hampshire and Illinois, that have enacted or are considering drug re-importation plans.

``Seniors are not the only ones affected,'' Frommer said. ``Last year, the out-of-pocket cost to Americans for prescription drugs went up by $6 billion - this is (more) than what Americans paid out of pocket for nursing home care and doctors visits combined.''

Seniors were thrilled about the pending legislation.

``I'm praying for that bill to go through,'' said Jeanne Blum, 79, while knitting a quilt from within a sewing circle at ONEgeneration Senior Enrichment Center in Reseda.

The Van Nuys senior said she just had a stroke and now must pay for expensive medicine to thin her blood.

``I don't know for how long I can afford it,'' she said, other knitters nodding in agreement. ``I just sold my house in Vermont, and I know most of the money I get will go to drugs. I'm on Medicare, but it doesn't pay for drugs.''

Lucy Mendel, 90, of Calabasas, said she spends about $300 a month for her five prescriptions.

``I'd rather go to the theater, or the opera, or the symphony,'' she said, ``than to spend it on drugs.''

While senior citizens services officials said they were in favor of lower drug costs, they also repeated arguments from the Federal Drug Administration that drug buys from Canada and other foreign countries could contain impure or tainted drugs.

``It's sort of a touchy issue,'' said Aileen Harper, acting interim executive director of the Center for Health Care Rights, which counsels Los Angeles County seniors on health insurance needs, of the pending legislation in California.

``What it will really result in is unclear.''

What is clear, they say, is a prescription drug-cost crisis overwhelming a generation of seniors.

Prescription drugs paid for by Medi-Cal cost $2.9 billion last year and are expected to cost $3.8 billion this year, Frommer said. The state Department of Corrections reports its drug costs have risen 20 percent each year to an estimated $125 million.

Seniors living on Social Security checks of $800 a month have little left for food and prescription drugs, said Carol Danziger, senior director of community and social services at ONEgeneration.

``You talk about drugs and guess what? They end up making a choice between pharmaceutical items and groceries,'' she said.

Sherry Kobayashi, ONEgeneration director of care management, said she and her staff help seniors save every last dime in order to pay for costly prescriptions.

``What's typical is $500 a month, average,'' she said. ``Some don't take certain (medications), some cut them in half. When they stop taking them, other health problems occur and you add on to the cost they cannot afford to pay.''

Mitzi Greenspan, a former library employee, now takes 11 medications for ailments from diabetes to hypertension. Her husband, Herbert, a World War II veteran and retired pro basketball player and insurance claims adjuster, takes eight.

Both live on $2,100 a month in Social Security, with a little IRA-account income added. To get by, they asked doctors which drugs they could live without. They collect samples. They cut pills in half.

They say they've searched in vain for an affordable insurance plan for the gaps in their Medicare.

When a U.S. insurance company counselor mentioned ``a lot of people are doing the Canada thing,'' Mitzi made several purchases from Canadian pharmacies and found that thyroid medicine costing $57 locally could be bought for $17 across the border.

But even with all the finagling, their drug costs can still exceed $800 a month.

``Heavens (to) Betsy, I can't sleep,'' said Mitzi, a member of the ONEgeneration sewing circle, her eyes welling up with tears. ``We have no pension. I tell you what we're doing that's very foolish.

``We haven't been keeping up on maintenance of the house. Our heater is on its last legs - that's $7,000 ... sprinklers don't work. The kitchen needs redoing.

``Why don't more people speak up? This is so outrageous.''

Staff Writer David M. Drucker contributed to this report.

Dana Bartholomew, (818) 713-3730

dana.bartholomew(at)dailynews.com

CAPTION(S):

photo

Photo:

(color) Herbert and Mitzi Greenspan must pay for a combined 19 prescription drugs each month, and have asked doctors which medications they can live without.

Tina Burch/Staff Photographer
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Date:Jan 25, 2004
Words:1009
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