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Loss of Drug Program Spells Hardships

Will end of Illinois Cares Rx save money or cost the state more?

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AARP Bulletin State News IL: Medicaid

Barbara LaConte, of Berwyn, pays three times as much for her eye drops since losing Illinois Cares Rx coverage, and now has to pay her monthly Medicare Part D premium of $34.50 a month as well. — Jon Lowenstein/NOOR

Older Illinois residents and their advocates are warily monitoring the impact of losing Illinois Cares Rx, a state program that paid part of prescription drug costs for 168,000 older and disabled people until it ended two months ago.

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The program's coverage was reduced in September 2011 and was eliminated altogether on June 30 with only a few weeks' notice. It was one of many programs that were cut by the legislature to plug a massive state budget deficit. Ending the program will save the treasury about $73 million annually.

Illinois Cares Rx paid Medicare Part D premiums and required participants to pay a copayment of $5 to $20 depending on the type of drug.

Participants began to directly feel the program's loss during the past two months when refilling prescriptions and being charged new, higher out-of-pocket prices.

"They'll go to the drug store, put their Illinois Cares Rx card on the counter and be told it won't work any longer," said Michael O'Donnell, executive director of the Bloomington-based East Central Illinois Area Agency on Aging.

"Some may just walk away from the pharmacy because they can't afford to pay the higher cost," O'Donnell said. "Others may pay the cost of the medication and then not buy something else they need, like food."

Facing higher costs

About 143,000 older residents were using Illinois Cares Rx to supplement their Medicare benefits, including Part D prescription drug coverage, according to the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services. The remaining 25,000 who used the program were disabled people under 65.

Barbara LaConte, 76, of Berwyn, a suburb just west of Chicago, knows what's in store for those who lost Illinois Cares Rx coverage in June. She was removed from the program in last September's cutbacks and saw her prescription prices rise on her next trip to the pharmacy.

"Illinois Cares Rx covered my Medicare Part D [prescription drug] premium, so that's $34.50 a month I pay now," she said. She uses daily eye drops that her doctor says she needs to prevent blindness. The drops — formerly subsidized by Medicare Part D and Illinois Cares Rx — used to cost her $12.60 a month but now cost $39. Prices also increased for her blood pressure medications, said LaConte, a retired caterer and switchboard operator.

Next: What to do if you need help paying for prescription drugs. »

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Dr. Armon Neel, AARP's 'Ask the Pharmacist' columnist, explains why the medications you take may be causing more harm than good. Watch

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