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Retiree Has Remedy for High Drug Costs

Ventura County woman uses the Internet to help seniors find cheaper medicine in Canada.

January 19, 2003|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

In her working years, Audrey Brooks ran a punch press, tracked employee benefits for a steel company and wired circuit boards on ancient IBM computers until her fingers were raw.

Now retired, the Ojai grandmother is applying a mind for detail to a new task: finding cheap prescription drugs on the Internet for fellow seniors. In the past six months, she has helped dozens of low-income people cut their drug bills by steering them to bargains in Canada, where socialized health care keeps prices low and the exchange rate favors Americans.

Dogged by an array of medical problems herself, including an advancing case of glaucoma that may soon leave her blind, the 69-year-old doesn't buy her own drugs online. She gets by on her Social Security check, and her HMO covers most of her medicines.

But she took on the volunteer work for a local nonprofit group anyway, because drug prices "are just terrible," she said, and she is tired of waiting for Congress to do something about it.

"Hon, I'd be in Washington right now yelling my head off if I was able," said Brooks, a rail-thin 5-footer with quick eyes. "The people I help are just trying to get by, like everyone else."

Brooks joins an army of seniors trying to cope with high drug prices by buying them outside the U.S. Older Americans make up 13% of the population but account for 42% of the country's spending on medicines.

Groups in border states charter buses for "drug runs" to Canadian and Mexican pharmacies. Elsewhere, they jam community rooms to learn about discounts at big-box stores, to sign up for steep discounts offered by some pharmaceutical companies and to apply for price breaks through state-run programs. Increasingly, though, seniors are saving money on medicine without even leaving home.

That is where Brooks comes in, especially for folks intimidated by computers or worried that they will be taken in by unscrupulous operators. She has worked around computers since the days when they hummed in 4-foot-high boxes, so rummaging in cyberspace comes naturally. And she consults only pharmacies she has verified as licensed by the Canadian government.

Brooks meets with new "clients" to review their prescriptions, carefully noting each drug by brand and dose, then begins her simple -- though legally fuzzy -- process. She searches pharmacy ads online, finds the best price and downloads an order form from the store's Web site.

She faxes the order and a copy of the doctor's prescription to the pharmacy (the original prescription must follow by mail). Payment can be made by credit card or check, she said.

After seeing how it's done, many seniors handle their own refill orders. But Brooks helps those who are uncomfortable with the process.

One recent day, Brooks helped a caller find a cheap source of Actonel, used to prevent brittle bones. Though the caller's private insurance supplemented her Medicare coverage, she was spending nearly $300 for a 30-day supply.

Seated at an aging Hewlett-Packard in a guest bedroom of her modest wood-paneled home, Brooks tapped in the name of one of several pharmacies she uses. It's easy to get ripped off, Brooks said. So she never orders from Mexico or other countries that are less regulated than Canada and where, federal officials say, fraud is more prevalent.

Clutching her mouse in a hand so thin that spidery blue veins show through, Brooks looked up the cost of a 90-day supply. The price quoted was $132.88. Even with a $12.50 shipping charge, the saving was $754 --a typical result, she said.

"Hon, I had one lady go from a $3,300 monthly bill to $466," she said, looking up from the keyboard through thick glasses.

Brooks sometimes finds herself in front of the computer at 10 p.m. to keep up with the 35 people she helps each week. But she paces herself, taking cigarette breaks or visiting two grandsons who live down the block.

The seniors who call tell her heartbreaking stories of choosing between paying for food and paying for medicine, she said. "Maybe I was put on this Earth to help other people," she said. "That's what's really important to me."

Terry, a Ventura woman in her 50s who for privacy reasons asked that only her first name be used, said Brooks helped cut her $5,000 annual prescription bill in half. Dependent on a wheelchair, she takes six medications for chronic arthritis, high blood pressure and other ailments. The most costly drug, Neurontin, helps control excruciating pain in her legs, hands and arms, and she takes it around the clock, she said.

Terry's doctor referred her to Brooks, who helped her find better prices. Now Terry re-orders every three months. "Audrey's saved me a lot of money," she said. "She's a true angel."

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