Friday, April 30, 2010

The Elderly and Medications: At What Cost Health?

Recently, my elderly mother moved from the Northeastern to the Southeastern United States in order to live closer to my sister. A widow for several years, she is on what would be classified as a fixed income, and her medical insurance premiums and prescription drug plans eat up a great deal of her monthly budget.

When it comes to some of the more pedestrian prescription medications, co-pays can range from just several dollars to perhaps $20 or $30 per month. But heaven forbid that an American elder needs a medication that is not quite so generic in nature, and the monthly payments for such drugs can skyrocket through the roof, wreaking havoc with even the most well-planned budget.

We have all heard stories of senior citizens having to decide between groceries and medications, or turning off their heat in order to pay their health insurance premiums. These stories are not uncommon, and although many of these elders may be under the media radar, we all know that there are still millions of Americans struggling to retain their health insurance, obtain health insurance, or simply get by without any coverage whatsoever.

While the debate about the new health care reform legislation rages on, we must remember that many seniors like my mother are regularly raiding their hard-earned piggy banks in order to pony up enough money to purchase costly (and admittedly life-saving) medications. While the need for pharmaceutical companies to earn money and support new research is understandable, vulnerable Americans like my mother cannot continue to be placed economically between a rock and a hard place and simply offered a pillow of pity as compensation.

I agree that reform is contentious and painful, but so is making a choice between food and prescriptions. When a senior citizen skips a meal in order to fill a prescription or pay an insurance premium, it is once again illustrated that something is wrong with this picture. And when yet another uninsured child misses her annual physical and vaccinations, this flies in the face of the Surgeon General's message of the crucial importance of preventive medicine to the over all health of the nation and its citizens.

I don't have the answer to fixing this enormous challenge that our nation faces, but I can hear in my mother's voice over the phone that this simply has to change. The United States ranks behind many other industrialized nations when it comes to important markers of public health (like infant mortality, for example), and the fact that so many Americans continue to languish without health insurance would be laughable if it wasn't so tragically sad.

Every generation strives to leave a hopeful economic and social legacy for its offspring, and my mother's generation, who lived through the Great Depression, is no slacker in this regard. But when we see octogenarians eschewing good nutrition in order to pay for their basic health needs, we must realize that we are forgetting the sacrifices that our elders made for us in decades past. Change will come, but what cost we pay in the interim certainly remains to be seen.
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