An upcoming forum will address a Medicare policy presenting a challenge to many older people who have trouble paying for prescription drugs they need.
Alice Fowler has a deadline to beat.
In September, the 64-year-old's expenses for prescription drugs will suddenly rival the sum of her Social Security and other retirement income.
During that month, she will also will mark the third anniversary of a transplant operation in which Fowler received a kidney donated by her son.
The kidney has worked fine, but Medicare will cover her anti-rejection medications for only three years. Thus, in September, Fowler will join the growing ranks of seniors struggling to pay for both needed prescription drugs and food.
"I don't want to sound like a whimperer, someone who wants a handout," said the North Lawrence woman. "I just want it so I can live."
Basic Medicare doesn't help pay for prescription drugs -- a longstanding policy that, as drug costs have risen and the senior population has grown, has become a serious concern for health officials.
"There are a lot of seniors in similar situations," said Steve Carrier, a community services worker with Douglas County Senior Services.
Carrier said his office gets five to 10 calls a month from seniors who are having trouble paying for the medications they need.
It is a problem that hits a niche of people who are not destitute enough to qualify for Medicaid but are not rich, either.
The issue has driven the Kaw Valley Chapter of the Older Women's League to sponsor a forum on the topic this week.
The forum will be from 1:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday at Babcock Place, 1700 Mass.
Guests will include Fowler; U.S. Rep. Dennis Moore, D-Kan.; and a policy analyst with the Kansas Department on Aging.
For many, it comes down to choice of eating or taking drugs.
"Here's food, shelter and medicine -- what do they cut back on?" Fowler said. "They cut back on the number of pills they are taking."
That choice can have disastrous results, landing people in hospitals or worse.
"The doctor prescribes those for a reason," Carrier said.
For Fowler it is choice of staying in Lawrence or moving to Missouri, where there is a state program to help people who have had kidney problems.
Though Fowler lives in the North Lawrence home where she grew up and then returned to raise her four children, she wouldn't hesitate to leave.
"To save this kidney, I'd move to Timbuktu," she said.
But she doesn't believe she should have to.
Nor does she believe other Douglas County seniors should have to move to more populous areas where health maintenance organization (HMO) group insurance programs are available to help with drug costs.
Carrier said high-ranking health officials are aware of the problem.
He said a Medicare pilot program that will soon be available in some parts of the country, including a few counties in Kansas, will work like an HMO.
"Their goal is, within the next five to 10 years, to have it available in every county," Carrier said.
But that won't offer help soon enough for Fowler, who spends hours on the phone each day in search of an answer.
"It's been kind of horrendous," she said. "You run into a lot of dead ends."
Fowler, who retired in 1995 after 20 years as a fire department secretary, receives some retirement pay as well as Social Security. Together they bring her about $1,440 a month.
But last year, her medications cost almost $1,000 a month. One anti-rejection drug cost nearly $600 each month.
Those daunting numbers have made finding an insurance plan very difficult.
She has applied for special programs through some drug companies that offer free or reduced-cost drugs to eligible low-income people. If she qualifies, they will require her to reapply every three months, and she doesn't see them as a long-term solution.
The outspoken Fowler is up to doing battle.
But many seniors don't have the patience or the confidence to tackle what is a very complex system.
It is for those people, as well as herself, that Fowler is fighting.
"There are some people who, for whatever reason, don't speak up," she said. "I'd like to be an advocate for people who are not very vocal."
-- Kendrick Blackwood's phone message number is 832-7221. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.