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The Voters Ask: Arizona seniors find relief from drug prices in Mexico

HAYDEN, Arizona (CNN) -- On a crisp Arizona morning under blue desert skies, a band of senior citizens set out on an excursion across the expansive desert scenery of Arizona.

Senior center in Hayden
Seniors in Gila County, Arizona, learn their insurance coverage for prescription drugs will terminate at year's end  

But the scenery isn't the point of this trip. Three hours south of Hayden, these seniors cross the border with Mexico, bringing with them pill bottles and prescription records. It's a trip made necessary by their insurance company: The last health maintenance organization to operate in Gila County is pulling the plug on prescription drug benefits at the end of 2000.

Similar changes will mean an estimated 1 million American seniors will join the people of Gila County and lose their prescription drug coverage on January 1, forcing them to pay much more for medication that was once covered by their insurance policies.

And it raises a question that Virginia Giuliano wants Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush to address by Election Day.

"Why do Americans have to leave our country to get the drugs that they need to live, or make a choice of cutting back on food or selling their homes?" she asks.


Q: "Why do Americans have to leave our country to get the drugs that they need to live, or make a choice of cutting back on food or selling their homes?"

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CNN's Mike Boettcher looks at the issue of prescription drugs for seniors

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In this remote area, health care competition is scarce and prices are high. Expensive supplementary coverage is available, but it is out of the financial reach of most of these pensioners.

The same bad news is being heard in rural areas across America where HMOs and insurance companies are terminating their prescription drug coverage, said Annie Hinojos, director of the Gila-Pinal senior center.

"What it comes down to is, what are you going to do?" Hinojos said. "Eat? Pay your prescription? Pay your utilities? What are you going to do?"

Seniors like Robert Jones have no answer. Without coverage, he and his wife can't afford their prescription bill that can run as high as $500 a month.

"That is what I guess irritates me," Jones said. "We were very frugal all our life, and then to have medical expenses restrict us like it is -- it disturbs me."

As Jones sees it, he has to take matters into his own hands and hit the road. Hayden's location in the southern Arizona desert essentially cost them their prescription drug coverage -- but it allows them to make a fairly quick trip to Mexico to buy low-cost prescription drugs. It's a bargain for them.

Robert Jones
The prescription bill for Robert Jones and his wife can run as high as $500 per month. Their medications line these cabinet shelves.  

The men and women who traveled here on the seniors' bus ignore the street hawkers of the Mexican city of Nogales. They have one mission -- getting to the "farmacia" to begin a shopping spree for the drugs they need.

Jones, Giuliano and the other seniors find bargains on every shelf -- a financial salve to cover the loss of their insurance back home.

If Giuliano bought all of her prescriptions in the United States, her total bill would exceed 800 dollars. A little over $200 is her total bill when she buys her prescriptions in Mexico.

"These are $80 here, and I got them for $6 in Mexico," she said.

But many other seniors who don't have the good fortune to live near the borders of Mexico or Canada, where prescriptions are also cheap, also struggle with prescription drug bills. Hoping to ease their concerns, a measure allowing the re-importation of prescription drugs is moving through Congress and is likely to receive President Clinton's signature.

These seniors, including Giuliano, far left, and Jones, second from right, saved about $700 by crossing into Mexico to purchase their prescriptions  

The plan would allow drug wholesalers or pharmacists to buy U.S.-made drugs overseas for resale in this country, presumably so consumers can take advantage of cheaper prices abroad.

Gore would add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare, the federal medical insurance program for seniors, capping costs at $4,000 a year. Bush has proposed an ambitious 10-year, $110 billion overhaul of Medicare that would pay 25 percent of drug costs for all seniors who earn 175 percent or less of the federal poverty level. All out-of-pocket expenses above $6,000 would be covered for every Medicare beneficiary, the Bush campaign says.

Bush warns the Gore plan would force the elderly into a "government HMO," while Gore says Bush's plan depends on insurance companies that already have been unwilling to underwrite prescription drug policies for seniors.



Monday, October 30, 2000


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