Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor David Carey thinks health care costs -- specifically that of prescription drugs -- should always be a point of conversation in the community.
That conversation is needed now more than ever, he said, considering the rising costs of health care in Alaska and the nation.
"In my mind there is no doubt that we pay much more for prescription drugs than what we need to," he said.
That is why Carey is an avid promoter of one particular benefit borough residents receive from the borough's current membership in the National Association of Counties -- a free prescription drug discount card.
"What I've heard is that people are saying that they like it," he said. "Again, you are talking about saving money without really doing anything other than saying, 'I'm a resident of the borough.'"
However, despite rising health care costs, statistics indicate use of the free prescription discount card are down, leading Carey to wonder if residents aren't as aware of the program as they should be.
Carey included a report of the borough's discount card use in his mayoral report during last week's Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly meeting.
According to that report, 283 residents in the borough were actively using the discount card in March. The 283 residents used their card to purchase 564 prescriptions, of which 407, or 72.16 percent, ended up costing the resident less than they could have received through other pharmacy-driven discounts.
The total price savings on the number of prescriptions purchased in March was $8,726.65 from $32,212.98 total sales. Statistics also indicate an average savings of $15.47 per prescription for those who used the card at participating pharmacies.
However, those statistics are down from recent levels of card usage. Last March, 361 residents were using the card and usage hit a recent high in September 2008, when 429 residents were using it.
Tom Hodel, owner of Soldotna Professional Pharmacy, said he has seen interest in use of the card diminish since its introduction by the borough.
"Outside of the people that are currently still using it, I don't see any new ones coming in anymore," he said.
Hodel contends the situation is complicated by the fact many people who would have a hard time paying for prescriptions are those already on programs like Medicaid or Medicare.
But, for those residents who don't qualify for special programs, but have prescription drug needs, the rise of generic prescription drug plans may also be part of the reason for the decrease in card usage, Hodel contends.
"I mean it gives you a little discount on some of the real expensive drugs," he said. "Like I said, drug costs are going up, but with the advent of so many new, high-tech drugs too, there's still a lot of very inexpensive generics out there and the patient has the option to get those, too."
The bottom line, Hodel said, is that there are multiple ways residents can get help with the cost of their prescriptions, whether it is through the NACo card or otherwise.
"Whether or not (residents) place any value on it, I honestly don't know," he said of the NACo card. "There are a lot of other benefits out there for people with Medicaid and that."
"The pharmacies never get any benefit from the card outside of giving the discount because they are not locked into any pharmacy," he said. "They can go anywhere and get a discount on it."
Assembly member Hal Smalley said he was surprised to hear the number of NACo card users had decreased. He added there aren't very many reasons residents who are uninsured or underinsured shouldn't pick up a card.
"I don't know if uses of prescriptive drugs are down," he said. "I don't think so -- I think primarily it is just a lack of knowledge."
NACo prescription discount cards are available at a variety of locations including the Kenai Peninsula Borough Clerk's Office at 144 N. Binkley in Soldotna. For a list of pharmacies that participate in the NACo prescription drug discount card program, visit caremark.com/naco. For more information, call 877-321-2652.
Brian Smith can be reached at email@example.com.
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