Doping Voters

Los Angeles resident Margaret Sowma is in her mid-70s and trying to survive on a fixed income. It’s not easy juggling her prescription drug bills. “I have no benefits at all,” says the former seamstress, who spent 15 years making ladies’ suits and coats for a downtown factory that offered no health plan. “Anytime I need a prescription it comes out of my pocket.”

Seniors make up 14 percent of the population of California and receive 45 percent of all drug prescriptions. Prescription drug costs are their second largest monthly expense after housing.

“Pharmaceutical companies are making money hand over fist,” says Sowma, who spends close to $300 a month on medication for osteoporosis and high blood pressure. “How much can small pills cost?”

Just one osteoporosis pill costs $20. That is relatively cheap compared to some medications. According to California Public Interest Research Group, an uninsured person taking Zocor for high cholesterol is likely to pay at least $1,672 for a year’s supply.

Illustration by Mr. Fish

Seventy-nine-year-old Leona Tockey spends about $400 a month — one quarter of her income — on prescriptions. Last year, the former family therapist, who suffers from coronary arterial disease, sold her house and moved in with her daughter-in-law in Northern California. “I couldn’t financially maintain my home. And if I rent a place I won’t have any money left. You have to learn to live within your limits.”

On November 8, these women will vote on two dueling prescription drug initiatives. Both would create discount drug programs for low-income Californians, but are different in magnitude and enforcement action.

Proposition 79, backed by senior, AIDS awareness, labor and consumer groups, would create a program for uninsured people who make no more than $38,000 a year. Families of four who make no more than $77,000 would be eligible as would families with higher incomes who face medical expenses of 5 percent or more of their income.

Proposition 79 also gives the state the ability to penalize firms that refuse to sell prescription drugs at a discount and deny Medi-Cal contracts to those companies that do not enter into an agreement with the state. In addition, it allows anyone to sue a drug company for engaging in profiteering.

The competing pharmaceutical-company backed initiative, Proposition 78, is entirely voluntary for drug companies. Under the plan, drug makers would face no penalty if they declined to sell prescription medications to eligible residents at a discount price. “We will always be at the good will of the drug industry,” said Rand Martin, a lobbyist with the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, one of the backers of Proposition 79. “That is a lot of trust to give an industry that has been the most profitable out of all the Fortune 500 companies and have not been willing to exercise good will in the past.”

So far, the pharmaceutical industry has raised close to $80 million to topple its competitor, compared to $1.8 million by backers of Prop. 79.

“In a state as wealthy as ours we should have a medical care program that includes expensive prescription drugs that meet the needs of all the people,” said Tockey. “In a nation that neglects its elders and young we are doomed.”

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