‘Lifeline’ continues to shrink
by: Jean M. Lang
Nazar and Ruth Mikaelian would like to visit their great-grandchildren in Virginia, but they have less money for travel now because of cuts to a state program that helped pay for their prescriptions.
“It’s almost impossible,” said Nazar Mikaelian, 81, a retired engineer from Carver.
Massachusetts’ Prescription Advantage program, which supplements Medicare prescription coverage for low- and middle-income residents, used to help pay for their drug premiums and copayments.
The copayment assistance stopped last year. In January, the Mikaelians were among those told that the state would no longer help pay their premiums either. As a result, they’ve seen their monthly prescription drug costs jump from $36 to around $295. Mikaelian said he does not throw away prescriptions, even if they’ve expired. “I don’t get rid of it, I take it,” he said.Money for the Prescription Advantage program
will drop to $31.5 million—just over half what it was three years ago—if the legislature approves Gov. Deval Patrick’s proposal to shave another $3 million.
“This is the program that helps older residents get the medications they need to keep them healthy and out of more expensive care. It’s a lifeline to about 60,000 Massachusetts seniors,” said Deborah Banda, state director forAARP Massachusetts.
Patrick, a Democrat, said he tried not to cut services for older people in his $28.2 billion budget proposal but unprecedented financial challenges left him no choice. “I get what the impact is of these decisions,” he said, adding that if revenue is better than expected, he will restore the money. Massachusetts’ projected budget shortfall is estimated at $5.6 billion, 20 percent of the general fund, according to the Center for Budget Policies and Priorities.
Lawmakers will consider Patrick’s spending plan as they try to construct a state budget by July 1.
Andy Bagley, research director for the nonpartisan Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, said lawmakers should know by then if the state will receive $768 million in federal money that Patrick anticipated and included in his budget. “You take that [nearly] $800 million out, that’s a lot of cuts.”
House Speaker Robert DeLeo, a Democrat, said he will “do the best that I can to see that seniors are cared for.” But DeLeo, who is also president of the Friends of the Winthrop Council on Aging, told the AARP Bulletin: “I can’t make any promises now of what the cuts would be.”
Although Patrick leaves them untouched, home health care and senior protective services—already operating at reduced levels due to last year’s budget cuts—and councils on aging could still be affected. That would have a huge impact on people who depend on them.
In the seaside town of Hull, Mass., older residents count on the Anne M. Scully Senior Center and its van. Anita Kaufman, 90, and Josephine Murdock, 101, receive rides to and from the center on the four days each week it is open. They were there on a recent gray, rainy day, enjoying cake and each other’s company.
“It’s been very good for me,’’ Kaufman said. Her husband died nearly seven years ago and she has since moved in with her daughter. When people ask her what she does with herself, she said she tells them she goes to the senior center where “I talk and talk.’’
Murdock said the van is invaluable since her daughter, now 75, had hip surgery and no longer drives. Otherwise, she said she probably would just lay in bed, do crossword puzzles and read, as she does on Saturday mornings.
“I’m just happy to have it,’’ she said.
Barbara Lawlor, executive director of the Hull Council on Aging, is among those anxiously watching the state budget process, hoping services can be maintained.
She said budget cutbacks have led to the van driver’s hours being cut from 30 to 19 a week, forcing people to occasionally reschedule medical appointments. More cuts are looming. Lawmakers said in March they may cut as much as 4 percent from local aid in next year’s budget.
Edward Flynn, executive director of South Shore Elder Services, which contracts with the state, said 2,500 people statewide are on home care waiting lists, including 129 on the South Shore. “We’re real concerned about services going forward,” he said.
Freelance writer Jean M. Lang lives in Milton, Mass., and is a lecturer at Northeastern University.