Friday, August 8, 2003

Golden Buckeye cards on hold

Seniors still wait for drug discounts

By Jordan Gentile
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

COLUMBUS - Jean Reynolds doesn't want to turn seniors away empty-handed. But if Gov. Bob Taft's prescription drug plan is delayed any longer, he's afraid he'll have to do just that.

Reynolds is the 79-year-old acting director of the Deardoff Senior Center in Warren County. He's worried his center will soon run out of applications for the Golden Buckeye Card, which offers seniors discounts on food, entertainment and other items.

The cards were taken out of circulation last December so they could be redesigned to store prescription drug information. While Golden Buckeye applications can be used in place of the actual cards, the state won't mail any more applications until the governor's plan is ready.

As a result, many centers across the state have run out.

"It's wrong," said Reynolds. "It's like they're saying, to heck with the seniors."

A year after Taft promised seniors they would soon be able to use their Golden Buckeye cards to get prescription drug discounts, his staff is still trying to work out a compromise with the pharmaceutical companies and retailers.

In the Cincinnati area alone, employees at Over-the-Rhine, Fairfield, Anderson and North College Hill community senior centers say they have run out of Golden Buckeye Card applications.

Workers at other centers reported that they stopped giving them out because the state was no longer processing them.

David Gunnis director of the North College Hill Community Senior Center, which ran out of applications in the spring. He says he understands why the Golden Buckeye program is being overhauled, but believes the state could have handled the situation better.

"We're still in the dark," he said. "It would be nice if they informed us when they'll be available again. Then at least we could tell people who come looking for them."

The Ohio Department of Aging, which is in charge of the 27-year-old Golden Buckeye program, maintains that any inconveniences to seniors will be temporary. "We're assuming that the (drug plan) will be done shortly," said Steve Proctor, a spokesman for the department.

But despite Taft's promises, the plan has been delayed twice since January and many lawmakers wonder whether the program will continue to be pushed back.

"We'll pass that bridge when we come to it," Proctor said.

Proctor insists seniors may still get applications from libraries and other distributors that haven't used up their stock. But seniors who are less mobile may not be easily able to travel out of their community.

"A lot of them don't drive," said Sally Blue, a receptionist at the Anderson Senior Center in Hamilton County, which has also run out of applications. "When they do travel, they have to rely on us to get them around."

All this has given Taft's political opponents new ammunition in a continuing political struggle over prescription drug benefits.

"This is indicative of poor planning and the governor's inability to meet the needs of the people," said state Sen. Robert Hagan, D-Youngstown. "Not only can't he roll out the program, he can't even roll out the card."

Hagan and other lawmakers have criticized Taft's Golden Buckeye plan for not offering deep enough discounts or covering enough people.

But supporters of Taft's plan argue alternative programs that would force pharmaceutical companies to give larger discounts may be illegal. They also warn that the drug industry will fight those programs with so much money and political pressure that they aren't practical for the immediate future.

"We applaud any effort that offers real discounts to our constituents," Proctor said. "But we think this plan's closer to becoming a reality than any other."

Orest Holubec, Taft's spokesman, said GlaxoSmithKline is the lone pharmaceutical manufacturer still in negotiations and that the prescription drug plan would be announced by the end of September at the latest.

Meanwhile, at the Deardoff center and elsewhere, the seniors wait. Reynolds, who says he took part in the D-Day invasion during World War II, is fed up with the entire situation.

"When we hit the beaches, everybody did what they had to do," he said. "It isn't like that anymore. Too many of the politicians argue and argue and never get around to doing anything."

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