Story last updated at 1:56 p.m. Thursday, July 18, 2002

Alaska No. 1 in prescription drug cost
C. Keith Campbell
We have just concluded our annual celebration of our nation's hard-won and dearly-held freedoms. Now it's time for our nation's elderly to be granted their freedom from the financial ruin or lack of proper medical care that all too often accompanies the skyrocketing costs of prescription drugs.

AARP's message to Sens. Frank Murkowski and Ted Stevens is: The time for talk is over. The time has come to get prescription medications in the hands of the people who need them at prices they can afford. The time has come for you to act now to put a permanent prescription drug benefit in Medicare.

Alaska's Medicare beneficiaries need this coverage now. They cannot wait any longer for protection against the increasing cost of prescription drugs.

The passage of prescription drug legislation by the House of Representatives on June 28 is a start, but it requires improvements. Now it's time for the Senate to act and improve upon the House bill.

A number of bills are pending in the Senate, including a bill sponsored by Sens. Graham, of Florida, and and Miller, of Georgia, that AARP believes would offer real value.

Americans age 65 and older account for 42 percent of drug spending but represent about 13 percent of the population. The average Medicare beneficiary fills a prescription 18 times a year. A recent AARP survey of members found that one in five said that they have had a prescription from their doctor over the past two years that they did not fill.

Cost was the No. 1 reason people said they did not have a prescription filled. Prices for brand name drugs rose nearly four times as fast as the rate of inflation from 1998-2000, while prices for all prescription drugs, including generics, rose at more than triple the inflation rate.

For Alaskans of all ages, spending for prescription drugs rose 25.2 percent more in 2001 than the year before. Nationally, the increase was a horrendous 17.3 percent. Alaska has the dubious honor of having the highest increase in the entire United States.

Alaska's AARP members want a prescription drug benefit signed into law this year. The vote in the U.S. House of Representatives to make a voluntary prescription drug benefit a permanent part of coverage for Medicare beneficiaries is a step toward that goal. But there needs to be more substantial funding, better structure, and greater sustainability of benefits.

The blueprint for successful prescription drug benefit in Medicare is affordability and value. AARP research shows that beneficiaries assess the value of a prescription drug benefit by adding up the premium, co-insurance and deductible to determine if it is a good buy.

The large gap in coverage that exists in the House bill will discourage enrollment. More funds are needed to close this gap and ensure the program's survival.

In fact, our research has found that, to be successful, a Medicare prescription drug benefit must be permanent, and offer real value at an affordable price -- a premium of no more than $35. It must contain no gaps in coverage -- no one should have to pay 100 percent of high out-of-pocket costs.

It must also help low-income beneficiaries and help bring down soaring drug costs. And it must be voluntary, and be available to everyone, no matter how rural his or her home.

For the rest of the summer, AARP members will be calling on our senators to urge them to act now and bring a bill to conference with the House that provides real value to Medicare beneficiaries.

We cannot afford to waste this opportunity. We cannot afford another year of empty promises and campaign rhetoric. Action on securing a permanent prescription drug benefit must come now.

This is an urgent situation for Alaska's elderly and younger disabled Medicare beneficiaries. People with Medicare have been waiting over a generation for drug coverage. The Senate must act now.

C. Keith Campbell is a resident of Seward. He is outgoing chairman of the board for AARP's national Board of Directors and served as president and board chair of the Health Association of Alaska. Prior to his retirement in 1990, Campbell was the administrator and chief executive officer of the Seward General Hospital for 19 years.

There are more than 35 million AARP members in the United States.