By Brenda Marks
The Republican–American WATERBURY -- Frances Schoell spends nearly all of her retirement check on health insurance and a drug prescription plan. There is little money left over. Living on a fixed income isn’t easy and it’s only getting tougher, the senior citizen said on Wednesday. She waited for former Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy II to talk to 40 people at St. Mary’s Hospital where he was promoting Citizens Health, a discount prescription plan. “Costs keep going up,” Schoell said. Te Portland resident spends $197 a month for prescription insurance for herself and her husband. The couple pays $458 a month for health insurance and a drug plan. It is people like the Schoells who Kennedy said he wants to help. He swung into Waterbury to advocate for his nonprofit Citizens Health plan, an off-shoot of his nonprofit Citizens Energy Corp., which was founded in 1979 to help poor people pay their heating bills. The stop was one of three for Kennedy, a Massachusetts congressman from 1987 to 1999. He also spoke in Bridgeport and New Haven about Citizens Health. The prescription plan was officially launched in September in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. It aims to make pharmaceutical drugs more affordable to people without any insurance. However, it is available to anyone regardless of age, income or insurance coverage. It costs $12 a year per person and $28 a year for family. It was unclear Wednesday how many people have signed up for the plan so far. The group is fielding about 1,000 calls a day. “People today are faced with terrible choices,” Kennedy, the son of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. “Do they pay for heat, rent or prescription drugs? They can’t pay it all and often they put their own health last.” The group estimates there are 1.6 million people in the three-state area without any type of prescription insurance plan. Of those, about 500,000 are in Connecticut. Citizens Health is aligning itself with drug makers and pharmacies so its members can get better prices, he said. Pharmaceutical sponsors include Bristol-Meyers Squibb Co., GlaxoSmithKline and others. Kennedy declined to give an exact number of pharmaceutical makers who have agreed to back the plan because negotiations with them are ongoing, he said. Citizens Health Members save an average of 42 percent off retail price, but that savings can vary widely depending on the pharmacy, Kennedy said. Deeper discounts come from prescriptions ordered through the mail, he said. “Every time you use the card, you will save something,” he said. With numerous Medicare managed care insurers leaving the market, many elderly people in Connecticut don’t have access to prescription coverage, said Martin G. Morrissey, St. Mary’s interim president and chief executive officer. He said the hospital cares for many indigent and poor people who can’t afford prescriptions once they leave the hospital. “It is a problem,” he said. “That’s why we believe in this program.” Some Connecticut residents do have options. The state does have prescription coverage for poor people on Medicaid, but elderly people on Medicare often go without prescription coverage because they can’t afford it. Some even break pills in half to save money, Kennedy said. Connecticut spends about $400 million a year for pharmaceuticals for people on Medicaid, making it the largest purchaser of health care in the state, said Michael Starkowski, deputy commissioner of the state Departments of Social Services who also spoke Wednesday. The state also offers ConnPace, a state prescription benefits program that provides prescriptions to seniors or disabled Connecticut residents. It pays for most of the prescriptions’ costs. People are eligible based on income guidelines. Still, there are those who go uncovered. “People who need coverage most are those who can afford it the least,” he said.