Arrow-right Camera


State begins discount drug program

Tue., March 20, 2007

To save money on prescription drugs, Spokane retiree Dwayne Butler relies on free samples from his doctor and makes occasional trips to Canada for cheaper prices.

Yet the 71-year-old Butler and his 73-year-old wife still pay more than $5,000 out-of-pocket each year for their lifesaving medications, he said.

The couple rarely go out to the movies or dinner, and Dwayne Butler has applied for part-time jobs to offset the cost. But, he said, “nobody wants to hire an old man.”

The Butlers, and millions of other Washington residents, may get some relief in the form of a prescription drug discount program announced Monday by Gov. Chris Gregoire.

The program promises discounts of up to 60 percent on generic drugs and up to 20 percent on brand-name medications.

Unlike other coverage plans, the new Washington Prescription Drug Program is free and open to any state resident, regardless of income, age or insurance coverage.

“There is help on the way,” Gregoire said during a weekly meeting with Capitol reporters.

Washington is one of the first states to make a discount drug program free and open to all residents, said Richard Cauchi, the Denver-based health program director with the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“There has been an uptick in the number of these programs,” Cauchi said. “States in the last five or six years have shown an interest and commitment in trying to establish discount programs that would serve the part of the population that needs the coverage. These programs have varied widely and most of them do have some sort of income limit or some sort of requirement on existing coverage.”

Under the program announced Monday, any state resident can fill out a short enrollment form to receive an ID card good at participating pharmacies, which include Safeway, Albertsons, QFC, Shopko, Fred Meyer, Bi-Mart or Hi-School Pharmacy. People also can get their medication through the mail.

The discounts are made possible through the combined buying power of Washington and Oregon, which joined forces last year to form the Northwest Prescription Drug Consortium.

About 1,000 Washington residents enrolled in a pilot drug discount program last year. But that program was far more limited: It cost $10 to sign up, enrollees had to be at least 55 years old, and there were income limits. None of those requirements applies under the new program.

More than a dozen states have set up prescription drug discount card programs, but according to the senior citizens’ group AARP, the Washington and Oregon version offers the largest discounts.

“Because there are no limits on who can enroll in Washington, our potential customer pool is very large,” AARP Advocacy Director Lauren Moughon said.

A 28-year-old Spokane man with HIV, said he spends more than $800 a month on medications. The man, who asked that his name not be used, plans to sign up for the discount program as soon as possible.

“I think it’s a huge benefit for people in Washington,” the man said. “It’s so expensive, trying to maintain your health.”

It’s unlikely that people who have health insurance would save much money on the program, said Grace-Marie Turner, with the Galen Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan health policy think tank.

“There’s so many people that already have job-based insurance and they have pharmacy benefit managers that are negotiating prices for them with millions and millions of customers,” Turner said.

It is also unclear how much money an individual might save.

State officials were unable to provide any examples of the price of any medication before and after the discount.

Asked for examples of such savings, the governor’s press office referred questions to state Health Care Authority spokesman Dave Wasser.

Wasser said the agency has no examples, though the state’s contract with a private benefits manager guarantees prices 20 percent to 60 percent less than retail. Wasser referred the question to an AARP lobbyist, who also could give no examples

“The discounts that programs of these sort are able to provide vary widely,” Cauchi said.

“You cannot assure a person that their particular drug or even their particular condition will be dramatically affected by the program.”

In general, though, the most in-demand medications are those that get discounted, he said.

Butler wanted to know how to sign up right away for the discount plan. He had high hopes for any program that could cut the steep prices of his and his wife’s medications for diabetes, cholesterol, blood pressure and other conditions.

“I’d sign up for it,” he said. “I’d sign up for anything that’s going to help me lower my cost.”


Click here to comment on this story »