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Prescription help for needy is on the way

For decades, the nation's drugmakers have provided free prescription drugs to the poor. But many of the needy aren't aware of that, or can't get through the reams of paperwork required to take advantage of it.

They'll soon get some help in Pasco.

The Suncoast Health Council is launching an effort to get the elderly and poor the medications they need by setting up sites at local churches and community centers where they can help get them through the required applications.

The council is gathering grant funding and volunteers and finding sites. The goal is to get the program up and running by fall. The council started this Compassionate Drug Patient Assistance Program last year in Pinellas County and enrolled about 2,000 residents there.

"A lot of the needy don't get the drugs because they don't fill out the paperwork," said Elizabeth Rugg, executive director for the St. Petersburg-based nonprofit health planning council. Many of the people the group has helped have literacy and language difficulties and multiple illnesses. The average client that they've seen needs about six medications.

"It's mind-boggling when you look at the needs of these people," she said.

Drug companies have provided free drugs to the needy for years, but many of them started formal programs in the mid 1980s.

Last year, they provided $1.5-billion worth of drugs to 3.6-million people all over the United States, according to the Pharmaceuticals Research and Manufacturers of America. The trade group expects more than 4-million people nationwide to get drugs this year through these types of programs.

"These programs are real stopgap measures," said Jeff Trewhitt, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based association.

"To the extent that many of these patients received assistance, it just underscores the need for Congress to act and reform Medicare to provide prescription drug coverage."

About 30 percent of people over the age of 65 don't have any prescription drug coverage through insurance or pension plans and must pay cash for their medications, Trewhitt said.

Doctor authorizations and financial documentation typically are required for the program. But each company has its own criteria that patients must meet.

The Suncoast Health Council is targeting people who are: 19 or older with chronic or episodic conditions that require prescription drugs, have no drug coverage, are ineligible for Medicaid, as well as seniors who do not have any Medicare supplements.

To qualify, patients must have incomes that are no more than double the federal poverty guidelines. For example, a single person could have an annual income no higher than $16,512 and a family of four could have an income no higher than $34,104.

_ Jennifer Goldblatt covers business in Pasco County. She can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6229, or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6229. Her e-mail address is