Standing in Line at the Pharmacy, Uninsured*

Standing in line at the pharmacy while unemployed and uninsured is an interesting experience. Being in that situation, I find myself listening to the amount others pay for their medications – with or without insurance. Given that our neighborhood has a number of older people, I tend to find myself behind people covered by Medicare, TRICARE, Medicare Part D and other government-run health care programs or insurance.

For instance, while standing in line at CVS to pick up a month’s supply of 100mg Lamictal (>$400), I watched and listened as a 75-year old gentleman (I know his age because he gave his birth date to the pharmacy technician) pick up his and someone else’s medications. I looked at him – as many of us do at the elderly – with a bittersweetness, a long life lived for mere deterioration and the hope we can be as spry as he is at that age and, most frightening, as the face of imminent mortality.

The tech rang him up for a little over $70, which I personally think is a bit expensive, especially for an elderly person on Medicare and possibly a fixed income. (It turned out Medicare Part D just started covering one of his drugs, reducing his bill by probably ten dollars.)

The tech called for backup to relieve the line that had backed up behind this gentleman. After I gave my information to the pharmacy technician, I leaned over to the gentleman and said – and then said again louder because he’d left his hearing aids at home – “If you think that $74 is bad, watch this.”

He replied that he thought pills were supposed to be expensive. “Obamacare!” he declared. Then, “I guess I shouldn’t have said that.” I mostly ignored these comments but was just about to say that I certainly hoped it would reduce my drug costs when the tech appeared with my medications.

I showed the older gentleman my med’s price-tag. “One month’s supply. Over $400.”

He said I may have to eat beans for a while. No kidding.

Similarly, a few weeks ago, an elderly woman in front of me at the same counter argued with the pharmacy technician over paying $3 for a medication she believed should be free under TRICARE. (I was in line to purchase $800-worth of 200mg Lamictal XR.)

Your first question is: Why are you complaining? And then: You can afford to pay the exorbitant prices when others can’t, so why are you whining?

Two answers: I’m not whining, I’m bemoaning the fact that anyone should have to pay such prices for necessary medication. Second, I can’t afford it. But my parents’ VISA limit happens to be high enough to float my wife’s and my mental and physical health until our new health insurance becomes effective.

We’re two professionals. Misty is well-paid in a high-demand field where she has unmatched skills. I’ve been struggling – despite my professional experience and successes – to find work for over a year now. We both dealt with serious illnesses at the end of 2011 and then became unemployed in late 2012, the worst time to look for employment. We never even received our COBRA paperwork, even though we called BCBS of Texas and Misty’s former employer. Our bank account hit zero – and we nearly lost our house – because I vowed we’d spend every last dime we had protecting our health. Without it, we can’t be productive.

There are others in much worse situations.

I don’t hold those older people in any sort of contempt. But they are beneficiaries of government-run health insurance programs. It’s hypocritical for the first gentleman to blame a program that hasn’t even gone into effect yet and that will help both of us – instead of the current one, in which only he benefits – for the exorbitant prices of medications.

It is the height of insensitivity to deny the younger generations the benefits he receives. It’s even worse to deny those in as much need or more as that gentleman, lady and myself those benefits. If it works for you today, why can’t it work for me? For all Texans?

Or maybe Texas hospitality stops at iced tea and college football.

[*Is that title Bob Dylan-ish enough?]

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