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
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
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
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
"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
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'
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,"
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
Wise says his own plan involves a less cozy relationship with
"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
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
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
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
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.