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A Benefit for Whom?

December 4, 2004
By Patricia Isaacs

In 1948, my parents were an unlikely couple. My father, the son of Orthodox Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, grew up in New York. When he returned from World War II he became the first in his family to receive a college education, attending the University of Illinois on the G.I. Bill. There he met my mother, the daughter of a small-town grocer and the granddaughter of a Presbyterian minister.

My parents gave up a lot to be together. Their families were opposed to the union; in fact, my father's sister never again spoke to him after he married my mother.

But I grew up with a front-row seat to a great love story. With respect, affection, and compromise, my parents have made it work for 56 years, and work well. They have lived purposeful, productive, generous lives, and along the way have managed to enjoy themselves immensely.

Children of the Great Depression, my parents live frugally. Dad keeps track of all their expenses in a little notebook. Through his working years, he saved faithfully, but didn't invest aggressively. They've taken good care of themselves, eating simply and walking daily. Now 82 and 83, they still live independently in the house they bought in 1964.

Last year Mom was hospitalized several times before being diagnosed with a form of Parkinson's disease that causes memory loss and hallucinations. With careful sleuthing on the part of her doctors, and trial and error, they have hit upon the right medications to control her symptoms and slow her memory loss.

After facing the possibility of my parents having to move out of their home into an assisted-living facility, our whole family was ecstatic when my mother's health improved. While she no longer drives, and Dad has taken over the cooking, they have reached a comfortable equilibrium. Her return to good daily functioning seems like a miracle, but much of it is due to the medications she takes.

Mom and Dad get a lot of enjoyment from their everyday lives. They drive a 12-year-old Saturn, and go to a family restaurant every few days, where they split an entrée. Dad works a couple mornings a week at a railroad museum restoring streetcars; Mom is active in her church and is making a quilt for their great-grandchild. They shop for groceries together and take daily walks in the park near their house. Recently they were able to take a train trip to New York to visit friends and relatives.

A few weeks ago, Dad wondered if we should talk to the neurologist about discontinuing Mom's Exelon, a memory-enhancing drug commonly taken by Alzheimer's patients "because she seems to be doing just fine." I was taken aback, and said I wasn't enthusiastic; I didn't think the neurologist would be, either. Why would my father consider taking Mom off a medication that prolongs their independence?

Soon the truth came out: since Mom's health crisis last year, my parents had been getting many of their prescriptions directly from the drug companies through special low-cost programs for those with moderate-incomes. There's a lot of paperwork involved, but my dad has gladly jumped through the hoops to get a month's supply of Lipitor or Exelon for $15.

However, with the new Medicare drug "benefit" my parents no longer qualify for these programs.

Dad says that while their Medicare card gives them a price break, the cost of these drugs have gone up just about that same percentage. He's recorded it in his little notebook. Even with the card, a month's supply costs over $100 per prescription. This "benefit" hasn't helped them.

He reports that attempting to use the card correctly has been confusing, and this guy is no dummy. He worked as an electrical design engineer for thirty years and had the reputation of being "the smart guy" at his company. He remains one of the sharpest people I know. How well would the card work for someone who never had that type of mental capacity, or whose ability to reason was compromised by age or illness?

He's looking into getting medications through the Veteran's Administration, but knows they're grievously understaffed and underfunded, and applying at this late date, he realizes he's way down the list.

I'm furious. After doing all the "right" things in their lifetimes, my father serving his country and providing for his family, my mother volunteering countless hours to staff food shelves and assist immigrant and welfare families moving to self-sufficiency, nobody's giving them a break. Instead, drug companies, exempted from the many of the pressures of price competition that other industries face, can simply demand more cash from those who have the least.

Our nation seems to be going back to the Dark Ages, where many suffer but those with power and privilege live in luxury. Government no longer serves average people; it benefits only the wealthiest of the wealthy.

It's time to look hard at the legislation proposed and passed by our government, and to insist that our elected officials act in our best interests. Just because something is called a "benefit" doesn't mean that it is. What does it actually do for you, the people you love, or those less fortunate than you?

The Bush administration has labeled its initiatives in such a way that to go against them would seem anti-American: "The Patriot Act." "Operation Iraqi Freedom." "The Medicare Drug Benefit." Then they repeat those deceptive titles over and over again until we've heard them so many times that we start to think they're accurate.

In our desire to draw together after 9/11, too many people are reluctant to say that these bogus programs are wolves in sheep's clothing. If the Land of the Free is to remain so, it must also be the Home of the Brave be unafraid to ask the hard questions, and demand answers that we can live with.

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