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Is drug bill peace of mind or euthanasia?

Okay, I need a little help. Do any of you know how this new Medicare prescription drug relief bill works? Here's what I know: It goes into effect in 2006 and the AARP endorsed it; that's it.

I've heard that it will give us prescription drug relief, but it's also rumored that it will push us out of the Medicare system and into the private sector. Am I wrong in thinking that the private sector involves all those guys who make a big profit on my failing health?

It will also make me a criminal if I seek prescription drugs outside the United States.

I hear "it's better than nothing." Well, duh! Everything has at least the possibility of being better than nothing.

A little perspective might be necessary. I recently applied for Social Security benefits. It was my first encounter with the apparatchiks who control our lives after a particularly significant birthday. I lucked out and got a very nice woman with a sense of humor. That was after I sat in a room full of people with various disabilities where numbers displayed on a screen indicated which of us would be dealt with next.

I really hoped the pregnant woman with whooping cough would be taken care of soon and leave. Maybe it was diphtheria. It has been a long time since my shots. So why am I sitting in a room with sick and injured people who clearly need medical attention? I'm just trying to sign up for an entitlement.

When I finally met the nice lady, it turned out that, because I was a stay-at-home mom, a preschool teacher, a waitress, a self-employed writer and never made much money, I didn't have enough credits to get Social Security. I panic. I see my Medicare benefits flying away.

Where's my safety net? Turns out that Darling Husband is my safety net. Because he was gainfully employed for many years, I can coast on his coattails.

I stop hyperventilating, banish images of myself as a bag lady, humming and cruising the streets pushing a shopping cart. I've been a widow. I don't look forward to that experience again, particularly if it might involve a shopping cart.

But what about the others, the ones who didn't find a Darling Husband in their waning years?

So what does this Medicare bill do for me? And what is this "doughnut hole"? Not being a rocket scientist, I assume it means that if I am a bag lady, I can get prescription drugs because I don't have anything of value to hock. Generics. No fancy, possibly foreign, drugs for me. But if I have an apartment or a car, I will have to sell them to pay for my drugs and when I'm financially wiped out, Medicare will come to my aid. Whoopee!

In some states major HMOs have already pulled out. So what if "private sector" outfits will take up the slack? I could be wrong, but it looks to me as if Medicare will cost me more in copays. It would be a good thing to be in an HMO or to be able to afford supplemental insurance. If I'm not yet of Medicare age, I can apply for my own Health Savings Account. That assumes that I'm still a wage earner and can afford to set money aside.

I know from experience that HMOs will move heaven and earth to get me to take generic medications even when they are not the best drugs to treat my condition. They're doing that now. I suspect they have deals with certain pharmaceutical houses to buy their products at a discount.

The HMO doctors prescribe those drugs even when they know there are better, safer ones. They deal with the consequences of bad drug treatments because Medicare pays them every time I have to visit. I, however, am NOT AT ALL happy knowing that better treatments are not being provided because they're not cost-effective. In fact, it's pretty clear to me that, after a certain age, I'm not cost-effective either.

How will this new bill help me? Who will protect me from the profiteering, from being exploited and from being targeted to die as a way of saving taxpayer dollars? Is my government providing help or institutional euthanasia?

_ Write to Sheila Stoll c/o Seniority, the St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.