Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin found an easy way yesterday to get a standing-room-only audience: hold a town meeting for senior citizens on the high cost of prescription drugs.
More than 100 elderly residents packed Pikesville Senior Center to hear Cardin, a Democrat from the 3rd District, describe his proposal to have Medicare pay for prescription drugs. It would be the first time the program covered such costs since it was founded in 1965.
With some senior citizens paying thousands of dollars a year for drugs, Cardin found a sympathetic audience.
"When we passed Medicare, prescription drugs were not a major expense. In the last 35 years, that has changed dramatically," he said, noting that one-third of senior citizens in the United States have no prescription drug coverage.
His proposal, introduced last year and called the "Medicare Chronic Disease Drugs Benefit Act," would require Medicare to pay for prescriptions to combat five illnesses that often afflict senior citizens: hypertension, major depression, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and heart disease.
Participants would pay a $250 annual fee to join the prescription program. Medicare would pay 100 percent of generic drug costs and 80 percent of the cost of brand-name drugs, he told the crowd.
Because the drugs in the five categories are mostly "maintenance drugs" that keep people healthy, "you could save health care costs" by ensuring the medications would be available to the elderly, who often live on fixed incomes, Cardin said.
Marilyn Axman, an outreach worker for the Baltimore County Department of Aging, said the elderly often are forced to choose between protecting their health and paying their bills.
Axman told the audience about visiting senior citizens and hearing them say, "If I don't pay my gas and electric bill, maybe I can buy my medication."
She noted that her agency can help a senior citizen in need pay for medication only once a year. Marian Klein, a member of the Beneficiary Advisory Committee on Medicare for the state, said expanding Medicare would help seniors cope with wide disparities in the cost of prescription drugs.
"This week I had a prescription filled for $44," she said, adding that the same drug at another pharmacy cost $27.
Cardin noted that while the elderly are "less likely to live in poverty and [are] the only age group with government health coverage," they still have the "highest out-of-pocket health care costs of any age group."