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This is the latest in an occasional series focusing on the issues, records and platforms of the state's candidates for governor. Today's installment focuses on health care.  Carl and Irene Aldridge spend more than $400 on prescription drugs every month. Irene, 70, has diabetes and is recovering from heart surgery. Carl, 78, a retired dry wall installer, has a lung condition brought on by years of exposure to asbestos. 
 The $400 covers only a portion of the St Albans couple's drug 
  • eeds. The Aldridges depend on Health Right of Charleston for the
  •  remaining medications they can't afford.
      "If we had to pay for all the medications we need every month, we couldn't afford to buy groceries or pay our utility bills," Irene said during a meeting of AARP in Charleston this summer.  "Please help us with our medication bills."  The Aldridges' plea is echoed by millions of people across West Virginia and the nation this election year.  Their sentiments are not lost on the state's candidates for governor.  Four gubernatorial candidates agree that drug prices have 
  • oared beyond affordability for many seniors and other West Virginians
  •  with limited finances.  The four candidates agree something needs to be done to remedy the problem. But they differ on ways to achieve that goal.  Major party candidates, incumbent Republican Gov. Cecil Underwood and Democratic challenger U.S. Rep. Bob Wise, use the issue in their television campaign ads.  "He's helping seniors save on prescription drugs," says the off-camera 
  • arrator in Underwood's ad.
  •   Wise's ad says, "He's going to take on the big drug companies and end the rip-off. He'll cut prescription drug costs so 
  • eniors won't have to choose between buying groceries and the medicine
  •  they need."  Underwood's focus has been on taking advantage of existing programs offered by pharmaceutical companies.  On July 15, the governor announced a plan to help low-income seniors get prescription drugs by using drug manufacturers' giveaways. He dubbed the program the Senior Prescription Assistance Network and said it would help seniors apply for free and reduced-cost medications offered by drug companies.  Gaylene Miller, commissioner of the state Bureau of Senior Services, 
  • aid the plan would take about $8 million of existing state lottery money
  •  to pay for salaries and other compensation to new state workers in each county. Another $2 million will be needed to cover administrative costs.  "The plan would have at least one state employee in every county to help eligible seniors with the paper work to apply for free and low-cost drugs," Miller
  • aid.
  •   Many pharmaceutical companies offer commonly-used drugs at no cost or reduced costs, but the rules for eligibility and time limitations  of the benefits are different for each company.  Workers in Barbour, Tucker and Randolph counties - where the plan has been operating as a pilot since July - say seniors often need help with deciphering and filling out complex forms required by drug manufacturers.  Some state money would also be used for emergency drug purchases, Miller
  • aid.
  • "It takes four to six weeks for the manufacturers programs to kick in, so some money will be set aside for seniors' immediate needs."  Two days after Underwood's SPAN announcement, he appointed a 15-member task force to study the feasibility of the plan and to study other possible options for short-term relief for seniors.  The plan, now in the governor's hands, agrees with Underwood's original idea of working with drug manufacturers on existing programs. Underwood recently assigned the task force to work on a long-term plan, which is due Jan. 1.  Miller emphasized that SPAN is a short-term solution. "Should Congress enact a prescription assistance program as part of Medicare or create some other national initiative, the focus of this program would be reviewed," Miller
  • aid.
  •   Also, manufacturers programs have time limits. Some are non-renewable and some require patients to fill out a new set of forms after 30, 60 or 120 days.  Wise says his own plan involves a less cozy relationship with 
    drug manufacturers.  "Underwood wants to hire a person in every county to help seniors seek rebates," Wise
  • aid.
  •   "I come at the problem differently," he said in August after his annual Senior Citizens Convention in Charleston.  "Drug company prices are simply too high and no one is 
  • egotiating on behalf of seniors to lower them."
  •   Wise said he wants to negotiate a deal with pharmaceutical companies to give West Virginia seniors the same discounts health-care facilities, insurance companies and other large organizations receive.  "Maine and Massachusetts have passed laws saying they will pool our Medicare recipients in order to receive discounts. We should be doing the 
  • ame here - negotiating to get discounts for our seniors," Wise
  • aid.
  •   Wise's campaign spokesman, Mike Plante, added, "He'll do it by sitting down with the drug companies and holding their feet to the fire to get better drug prices."  Plante said Wise has not said what he would do if the drug companies refuse to negotiate.  "All I can say is that he is willing to play hardball, but a good 
  • egotiator is not going to tip his hand before going to the table," he
  • aid.
  •   Wise's record in Congress is consistent with his promise to not hand out favors to insurance and pharmaceutical industries.  He voted against a Republican-backed bill last year to provide prescription drug coverage for Medicare beneficiaries that was based on Medigap private insurance policies. Many other Democrats also voted against the bill, saying the proposal did not apply to all Medicare beneficiaries.  According to the National Teachers Federation the bill contained no effective control over rising drug costs and allowed insurers to exclude expensive drugs and eliminate entire geographic areas from coverage.  Congress is expected to vote on another Medicare prescription drug program by the end of the year.  Mountain Party candidate Denise Giardina says the state needs to look at ways to make prescription drugs affordable for the working poor, 
  • ot just the elderly.
  •   In a telephone interview with the Gazette last month, she said, "I don't see the administration doing anything about that."  She said Underwood's recent cash awards to area senior centers for prescription drug assistance is like "putting your finger in the dike."  Giardina also criticized Wise's plan. "He's saying he'll negotiate, but he's not giving any specifics."  Giardina said negotiating with the drug manufacturers requires using "a big stick" and would work only if the threat of price controls was used as an incentive.  She said she favors pressuring Congress to allow states the ability to purchase American-made drugs from other countries. These drugs are often cheaper than the same drugs sold in the United States.  "We should be looking at ways for people to band together as a purchasing block to buy prescription drugs," she
  • aid.
  • "The state should be helping people do that."  Libertarian Bob Myers believes in a cyber solution to high drug costs. He recommends that people buy from the Internet.  "I believe in free markets," Myers told the Gazette in an interview in September. "It's the government that has caused the high cost of drugs. The FDA's unreasonable bureaucracy has driven up the price."  Myers said that the Internet is a competitive market tool that consumers should use. "Anybody can order prescription drugs over the Internet at a reduction in cost of 20 percent to 25 percent."  Those who do not have home computers or access to the Internet can go to a public library, Myers
  • aid.
  • "All the major libraries in the state have computers with access to the Internet, or they are getting them quickly," he
  • aid.
  •   Myers did not outline a specific plan for seniors who are unable to use computers or cannot afford to buy medications, even from the Internet. "There may be cases where people just don't have the money for drugs and that could be handled by another program, but by and large the free market will take care of everything."  To contact staff writer Martha Leonard, use e-mail or call 348-1254.  
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