Jewish World Review
http://www.jewishworldreview.com | (KRT) The Veterans Affairs Department has one of the best prescription drug plans in America. Increasingly, former service members want to take advantage of it.
Under the VA plan, veterans pay $7 per prescription for a 30-day supply. Under the department's proposed 2004 budget, the co-payment would be waived for lower-income vets, while higher-income veterans would pay $15 per prescription.
These relatively low fees are attractive to older veterans, who tend to have more chronic ailments such as arthritis or heart disease.
By the end of the decade, almost half of the nation's roughly 26 million veterans will be older than 65; a substantial number will be older than 85, officials note.
Many elderly veterans cannot get low-cost prescription drugs anywhere but the VA. Despite statements by both political parties about the importance of providing drug coverage to senior citizens under Medicare, Congress has failed to do so.
In the late 1990s, Medicare health maintenance organizations were a popular option for seniors seeking prescription drugs. These managed-care plans routinely offered low-cost coverage for medication as an incentive for seniors to join, along with other perks.
But under financial pressure, Medicare HMOs have shut down in droves, leaving more than 2 million seniors scrambling to find coverage since 1998. Many appear to have turned to the VA for help, officials report.
The best way for Congress to address burgeoning drug-related demand for services at the VA is "to get a prescription drug benefit enacted under Medicare," said Anthony Principi, secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
For the VA network serving northern Illinois, most of Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula, more than 70 percent of the 14,000 veterans on a waiting list are trying to enroll in the VA to obtain prescription drugs, according to Joan Cummings, the network director.
Bottlenecks are especially notable in smaller communities that draw retirees such as Rockford and Appleton, Wis., where VA clinics have new patient waiting lists of up to 3,000 each, Cummings said.
Under regulations, a new patient cannot get a prescription unless he or she sees a VA doctor.
Many older veterans have long-standing relationships with physicians outside the VA, whom they are able to see under Medicare but whose prescriptions the VA will not honor. When and if these veterans enroll in VA systems, their new physicians can write prescriptions but typically do not coordinate with care being provided outside the VA.
"It's a real medical management challenge," Cummings said.
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who is running for president, has proposed a solution: Let VA doctors sign off on prescriptions written by doctors outside the VA system. That would ease waiting times to get into the VA and ensure that veterans get prescriptions filled quickly, his staff said.
Principi endorses the idea as a "time-limited solution" to whittle down the agency's waiting list of nearly 120,000 veterans trying to get into the VA health system.
Last year, VA filled 191 million prescriptions, up from 66 million in 1997.
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