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Prescription drug costs continue to rise: Session focuses on drug costs

About 20 people Tuesday attended a listening session to discuss the strain rising prescription drug costs are imposing on seniors in Minnesota. Two members of U.S. Sen Al Franken's staff hosted a meeting as part of Franken's "Prescription Drug Co...

Sam Mills, who works in the St. Paul office of U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., speaks to a group of people Tuesday in the Crow Wing County Land Services Building about the rising costs of prescription drugs for seniors. (Brainerd Dispatch/Spenser Bickett)
Sam Mills, who works in the St. Paul office of U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., speaks to a group of people Tuesday in the Crow Wing County Land Services Building about the rising costs of prescription drugs for seniors. (Brainerd Dispatch/Spenser Bickett)

About 20 people Tuesday attended a listening session to discuss the strain rising prescription drug costs are imposing on seniors in Minnesota.

Two members of U.S. Sen Al Franken's staff hosted a meeting as part of Franken's "Prescription Drug Cost Listening Tour," at the Crow Wing County Land Services Building.

Sam Mills, who works in Franken's office in St. Paul, said there were two goals for Tuesday's meeting. The first was to hear and collect stories from the seniors in the audience about how rising drug prices are affecting them. The second was to give them more information on the resources available to them.

Mills played a recorded message from Franken, where he welcomed attendees to the listening session and explained to them how hearing their stories will help him work in the Senate to pass legislation to help them.

"Armed with your stories, I plan to press my colleagues for action on this important issue," Franken said.

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Franken has been working on different things to alleviate rising prescription drug costs, Mills said, notably by trying to stop the practice of pharmaceutical companies preventing generic drugs from entering the market. He's also worked to prevent pharmaceutical companies from being able to deduct the money they spend on advertising, she said.

"He really feels that pharmaceutical companies have the right to advertise," Mills said. "But the taxpayers shouldn't be subsidizing those advertisements."

Personal stories

Most of the nearly two-hour listening session was devoted to hearing the stories of how rising prescription drug costs have affected area seniors. Karen Morgan, Merrifield, outlined how the costs of different medications she takes have risen. Living on Social Security, she said she doesn't have the money she needs to spend on her medications and became emotional as she described her plight.

"One medicine I dropped completely, I can't afford it," Morgan said.

The current prescription drugs costs are unacceptable, Mills said, and people shouldn't have to choose between paying for their prescriptions or paying for rent or food.

"This is why it's so important to be meeting with you all, because this is what Congress, this is what people need to hear," Mills said. "This is real life."

Randy Brenny, outpatient pharmacy manager at Essentia Health-Brainerd Pharmacy, said he frequently hears from patients about the rising costs of their drugs and how they struggle with them. He said he's spending more time talking with patients about rising drug costs than talking with them about how to take their prescribed medications.

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"I spend a lot of my day just trying to get patients to be able to have their medications," Brenny said. "Much less how to take them."

Carol Helmer, Brainerd, said she attended the session Tuesday on behalf of her husband, who has battled an inflammatory disease for more than 15 years. While Helmer was working, her husband's prescriptions were covered under her health insurance and there were no problems. But when she decided to retire, they ran into a slew of problems trying to find a plan that would cover her husband's medications.

"His response is, 'I'll just stop taking everything,'" Helmer said. "And he can't."

Al Martin, Ossipee Corners, said his issues weren't as extensive as some of those mentioned in the listening session. He said he wasn't aware rising prescription drug costs were causing such widespread problems. He's become frustrated while trying to compare drug costs among pharmacies and has found the process difficult, if not impossible.

"That's a game that the mafia or organized crime would love to get into," Martin said. "It's really shady, I didn't realize it was that bad."

Available resources

Jeannine Henn, Senior LinkAge Line advocate for Cass, Crow Wing and Wadena counties, said it's unfair for someone to only be able to change insurance plans once a year, while insurance companies can alter their plans at any point. It's not illegal for companies to do that, she said, but it is unethical.

"If your insurance company makes a change, it's my personal opinion, you should be able to make a change as well," Henn said.

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Lori Vrolson, Central Minnesota Council on Aging, said the Senior LinkAge program is available throughout the state and features three helplines, for veterans, seniors and those living with disabilities. The Senior LinkAge Line helps seniors navigate the maze of the Medicare system, she said.

Henn said her position is only part-time, but there's enough work for her to easily work full-time if funding made that possible.

"The need in this area is tremendous," Henn said.

Senior LinkAge helps seniors by providing them with objective information on services, Henn said, and not pushing them to choose a certain option. They track the services they provide, she said, in order to develop programs to quickly respond to area demands. They advocate for seniors, research programs and connect seniors with resources.

Senior LinkAge doesn't charge for services, doesn't provide direct financial assistance and doesn't charge for its services, Henn said.

It's important to raise the awareness of resources and let representatives know how important it is for resources to be funded adequately, Mills said.

"It's really important to hear from all of you," Mills said.

SPENSER BICKETT may be reached at 218-855-5859 or spenser.bickett@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/spenserbickett .

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