The American Elderly: Medical Refugees
One third of them -- roughly 15 million -- have no health insurance to pay for prescription drugs. I could understand if this was somewhere in the newly developed world. But what caught me off guard as I watched 60 Minutes this weekend was that it was happening just south of the border in what is undoubtedly the richest and most powerful nation in the world. That's right, American senior citizens have to come "up north" or go south to Mexico for life saving medications.
It strikes me a bit odd that Americans as a people can continue to tolerate their parents and grandparents having to cross these borders to buy drugs or suffer silently as a result of overpriced medicines. According to the CBS newsmagazine the National Council of Senior Citizens (NCSC) has organized a number of bus trips to Canadian pharmacies. The show featured senior citizens who have given their blood and sweat to build America, now having to cross the border so they can purchase medication in Canada at prices 30 percent to 300 percent lower than in the United States.
Like a drug dealer, the Canadian pharmacist's face is blacked out because he is not supposed to fill the prescriptions unless a Canadian doctor countersigns them. But out of sympathy he takes the risk. One lady's drug bill would come to more than $1,300 per month if she bought these drugs in the United States, while her income was only $1200 per month. Others had to pay more than half their incomes out to the pharmaceutical industry in the U.S. before they discovered Canada.
"We are refugees from the American health-care system," said one of the senior citizens on the bus. The retired professor told Mike Wallace, "We are inadequately insured, struggling to take our medication, without which we will die. Thank goodness Canada is here."
According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, the elderly (65+) represented 12.7 percent of the population in 1997 and are expected to make up 13 percent in the year 2000 and 25 percent by the year 2030. With one of every six (17 percent) older persons being poor or near poor in 1997, one would expect the government to take an active role in ensuring that their health care needs were fulfilled. The figures are even more shocking when it comes to certain minority segments of American society. The worst situation is that of single black elderly women, 40 percent of whom are classified poor.
Health wise, more than 52.5 percent of the elderly suffer at least one disability. They accounted for 40 percent of all hospital stays and 49 percent of all days of care in a hospital in 1995. Yet, almost 1 million senior citizens where disqualified from health maintenance organizations (HMOs) in the past year because they were not profitable to the Plan. Most seniors cannot afford private health insurance because even plans with very limited drug benefits cost almost $4,000 per year -- clearly an exorbitant amount when the average income of senior citizens in the country is $16,000 per year and the median income is about $14,000.
Rather than helping to care for them during their most vulnerable period, Congress passed a law 11 years ago preventing the re-import of American drugs sold overseas at a fraction of the U.S. market price. Hence, the bus trips.
Why does this deplorable situation continue? Well, it appears to be a simple case of "money talking." According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association (PhRMA) and its member corporations contribute more to congressional bank accounts than any other industry. The Association has also flexed its financial muscle to attempt to win over the American public. You may have already seen the ads running on TV, part of a $30 million dollar campaign launched by the industry to confuse Americans.
The campaign is sponsored by Citizens for Better Medicare (CBM). According to Steve Protulis, executive director of NCSC, CBM is not citizens-based. In fact, the group is fully funded by the industry and is headed by the former marketing director of PhRMA. CBM member organizations include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers which was a leading opponent of Medicare in 1965. Talk about a con job.
The PhRMA also claims that by not allowing the industry to charge "market prices" to senior citizens, funding for research will be cut. Nonsense says the NCSC. Most of the core research behind these drugs was carried out by the National Institutes of Health and funded by taxpayers says Protulis. Moreover, why should senior citizens be gouged to ensure research while those who can afford it are covered by insurance and pay less for drugs because of the bulk buying powers of insurance companies?
The result of their political contributions, propaganda and scare tactics appears to be paying off. One of the most profitable industries continues to get away with charging the highest prices to those than can least afford it.
It appears that the lobbying culture in American politics has made everyone concerned only with the issues that affect them directly. But as an outsider looking in I can say that the plight of the country's senior citizens is a shame on all Americans. American Muslims have an added religious responsibility to take an active role in bringing about improvement in the life of these seniors. Clearly, the job of correcting this situation cannot -- and must not -- be left to senior citizen's groups alone. Every American has an interest in ensuring that the elderly are looked after for selfish reasons if justice, respect, fairness and compassion are not motivation enough. After all, one day every American blessed with long life will join the ranks of the elderly.
Faisal Kutty is a Toronto lawyer and writer and is also a columnist for the Washington Report On Middle East Affairs