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End of program hurts seniors struggling to get by

October 31, 2017

For a politician, it was a refreshingly candid answer.

“We fixed the problem in the worst way possible, with an increase to the real estate transfer tax.”

That was Gov. John Carney, quoted in the July 31 Cape Gazette, referring to the state’s last minute deal to balance the budget.

It’s not often you hear politicians taking responsibility for a mistake.

But while tax increases attracted the most attention, the state also cut programs.

One such cut was for the Delaware Prescription Assistance Program, which began in 1999 with money from the tobacco companies’ settlement.

DPAP provided up to $3,000 annually in prescription assistance to Delaware residents, age 65 and older, whose income fell below 200 percent of the poverty line.

In Fiscal Year 2016, DPAP cost the state a little over $2.2 million, which hardly counts as a rounding error in a budget exceeding $4 billion. Still, the state couldn’t find the money to continue the program.

As of July, it served 5,102 Delawareans. It ended Aug. 31.

Among those affected by the program’s termination is Cindy West, who lives with her husband Robert at Savannah West Square, located off Route 1 near the State Police Troop 7 headquarters.

It’s a small complex reserved for seniors and low-income families. West was thrilled three years ago when they got the opportunity to move to the Lewes area from their home in Newark.

But the end of DPAP has made their life more difficult.

Between the two of them, West said, they bring in $1,800 a month. That’s $21,600 a year - not enough for the comfortable life enjoyed by many retirees in the Cape Region.

The program helped the Wests make do on their modest income. Like many seniors, West, a diabetic, takes a variety of medications.

DPAP didn’t cover all the costs. But it knocked off $10 to $20 for each prescription. When you take 10 different medications, as West does, that adds up.

“It was a security blanket,” West said.

The end of DPAP has forced her to cut back. Watching some of their favorite shows on cable was probably as close as they came to enjoying a luxury.

“We don’t go anywhere,” West said. “That was our highlight.”

But that little extra had to go. They still have basic cable.

Not that she complains. “I’m going to fight through this,” she said. “I know other people are in the same predicament.”

A recent letter to the editor in the News Journal told a similar story: An older woman, on her own, facing prescription costs of $407.27, which, she said, “I can no longer afford.”

Jill Fredel, director of communications for Delaware Health and Social Services, which administered DPAP, said the program primarily assisted with premium payments for people who reach the Medicare Part D “donut” hole.

“As the donut is phased out,” she said, “spending in DPAP has lessened and the purpose for which it was created has been largely eliminated.”

She said the state is working with clients to transition to a Part D plan.

But Deb Schultz of Lewes, a volunteer who helps people navigate the maze of healthcare coverage, said other programs don’t take the place of DPAP.

She also said the donut hole - a coverage gap in Medicare Part D - never entirely disappears.

Even before DPAP’s demise, Schultz said, people were having a hard time paying for their medications.

“I have people tell me they are rationing their insulin,” she said.

“I have even had a couple tell me they are sharing their insulin, making one prescription stretch for two people or simply forgoing their dose so their spouse can have it.”

There are programs besides DPAP, some run by the drug companies themselves, but they have serious limitations - for the customers.

Schultz described the programs as “basically a scam,” designed to allow drug companies to maintain high prices.

Often, they require people to pay $1,000 out-of-pocket before their costs are covered.

This results in two problems.

First, coming up with a thousand bucks is tough enough if you’re living on $21,600 a year.

Second, that’s for one drug. If you have multiple prescriptions, like West, you have to meet that $1,000 out-of-pocket expense for several drugs.

The good news, if there is any, is that the Progressive Democrats of Delaware haven’t given up on DPAP.

The group plans to push for the program’s return when the General Assembly meets next year.

So we can fix some of the mistakes in this year’s budget.

And we can help people like the Wests, who are struggling to live out their lives with as much happiness and dignity as they can muster.

  • Accomplished writers appear in the Politics column every Tuesday on a rotating basis to explore the dynamic world of politics at the local, county, state, national and world levels.

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